By Abby Seiff
The violence and subsequent quashing of freedom of assembly that broke out in Cambodia in early January marked the most extreme crackdown by the government in 15 years. In a nation where the last decade has painted an impression of stability and growth, the latest repression highlights just how tenuous Cambodia’s successes have in fact been.
The military on January 2 was sent in to clear garment workers protesting outside a Korean-owned factory that produces clothing for the likes of Gap and Banana Republic. The following day, riot police were sent in to clear a road blocked by angry demonstrators, shooting dead four people and injuring dozens. On January 4, police and thugs armed with steel pipes appeared without warning at the public Freedom Park, which was the epicenter of the opposition’s rallies, and violently drove out scores of elderly farmers, monks, and land activists who had been camping in the square. The government also banned public assembly and gatherings of more than 10 people until public order is restored.
After three days of a brutal government suppression, opposition leader and head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy on January 5 gathered journalists in his office and calmly dismissed concerns that the country had become a police state.
“The ruling party uses hard power for a while, to crack down first. First they want to crack down on the industrial strike, beyond the industrial strike they want to crack down on the worker movement. Beyond the worker movement, they want to crack down on the democratic opposition,” Rainsy told a group of foreign and local reporters. “But they are also responsible people to some extent, they have to ensure that after cracking down on the worker movement, they have to deal with the political, democratic opposition.”
Outside Rainsy’s office, scores of angry CNRP supporters traded tales of government corruption and grumbled about the decision to halt the demonstrations.
Resistance to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been steadily mounting since the July elections, which saw shocking gains by the CNRP and the poorest showing since 1998 by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
When the CNRP refused to take its seats in parliament, claiming it had rightfully won an election rife with irregularities, many long-time observers predicted public support for the opposition would wane. Instead, it has steadily mounted, partly as a result of a number of ill-timed government decisions – including an announcement of an inadequate minimum wage raise – that effectively pushed more people into the opposition camp.
In late December, the CNRP received its biggest boost when the government announced it was giving garment workers a $15 monthly salary raise, far below the called-for $80 monthly increase. Unions and workers had been calling for a $160 minimum wage, which would have doubled the current $80 base.
While far from conciliatory, the government showed notable restraint up until the latest violence. While protests became a mainstay in Phnom Penh for months following the July elections, occasional clashes between demonstrators and the police generally followed appropriate rules of engagement.
Before the recent conflict, Hun Sen even offered some carrots to the opposition and anti-government protesters, including by releasing a prominent land rights activist who had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges and promising wage raises for civil servants. But negotiations with the opposition continued to stall, while the public continued to turn out in even larger numbers.
Following the government’s new salary announcement, hundreds of thousands of workers began striking. As the garment strikes grew increasingly protracted and occasionally violent, the government’s response grew tougher. When the workers showed few signs of backing down – a move that threatened to undermine an industry that remains the cornerstone of Cambodia’s economy – tensions rapidly escalated.
Unable to give workers the raise they demanded and likely terrified of their growing political leverage, the government dug its heels in and resorted at last to the hard-line responses that had served them well since 1993.
As far as the CPP is concerned, the harsh crackdown was a success. As of January 6, most workers had returned to their factories, while civilians were perhaps too cowed to stand up again for the time being. Twenty-three people, including rights activists and wounded protesters, were detained and may well be charged with lengthy sentences to serve as an example. Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha on January 14 are expected to go to court for questioning, while several union leaders are facing lawsuits from the government and businesses.
For decades, Cambodia’s leaders have successfully retained control through strong-arm tactics. But it is far from certain that Hun Sen will have the final word this time. Since the July elections, tens, if not hundreds of thousands, marched through the streets of Phnom Penh demanding his resignation, with many willing to fight to the death for that possibility. Today, however, that may not be enough.
Ms. Abby Seiff is a Cambodia-based journalist. Follow her on twitter @instupor.