Cambodian cops open fire at factory workers

January 04, 2014 - 4:50:05 am

A protester is detained during clashes between garment workers and security forces in Phnom Penh yesterday.

PHNOM PENH:  Cambodian military police opened fire with assault rifles yesterday to quell a protest by stone-throwing garment factory workers demanding higher pay in a crackdown a human rights group said killed four people.

Chaos during nationwide strikes erupted for a second day as security forces were deployed to halt a demonstration by thousands of workers, who refused to move and threw bottles, stones and petrol bombs at an industrial zone in Phnom Penh.

The clash represents an escalation of a political crisis in Cambodia, where workers and anti-government protesters have come together in a loose movement led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Unions representing disgruntled garment workers have joined opposition supporters protesting against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to demand a re-run of an election in July that the opposition says was rigged. 

Military police confronting the protesters fired live ammunition, and bullet casings were later seen scattered across the ground. 

The clashes took place at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh, home to dozens of factories that make clothing for western brands that include Adidas, Puma and H&M Hennes & Mauritz.

Human rights group LICADHO described the incident as “horrific” and lambasted military police, adding that their own investigation and surveys of hospitals had found four people were killed and 21 wounded.

“We condemn this appalling use of extreme lethal force by security forces”, the group’s director, Naly Pilorge, said in a statement. “Security forces must now put an immediate end to the use of live ammunition against civilians.”

Spokesmen for the national police and military police said they could not verify the number of casualties.

It followed a crackdown on Thursday outside a Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc factory in another part of the city, when armed troops struck demonstrators with batons, wounding 20 people. 

The CNRP, led by former finance minister Sam Rainsy, has courted some 350,000 garment workers from nearly 500 factories across the country by promising to nearly double the monthly minimum wage to $160 if it wins a re-run of the July election, which Hun Sen is refusing to hold.

The government is refusing to raise the wage beyond $100 dollars a month and has ordered factories to reopen to prevent damage and job losses in an industry worth $5bn a year to what is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Cheath Khemera, a senior labour officer at the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said it was too soon to assess the cost of the strikes, but he estimated each factory could be losing $20,000-$30,000 a day.

“This really impacts the industry seriously,” he said. Until this week, security forces had exercised restraint to try to cool tempers as pressure mounted on a government facing some of the biggest protests ever seen in Cambodia.                 Reuters