Cambodian police kill three as government seeks to quell labor unrest

Cambodian police shot three garment factory workers participating in a strike today. Spreading labor unrest is just the latest challenge to the rule of strongman Hun Sen.

Heng Sinith/AP
Cambodian riot police prepare to blockade garment workers during a strike near a factory of Canadia Center, on the Stung Meanchey complex at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. Police wounded several striking Cambodian garment workers Friday when they opened fire to break up a labor protest, witnesses said.

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Cambodian military police today opened fire on garment factory workers demanding higher wages, killing at least three, officials say, underscoring the Southeast Asian state's reliance on violence to maintain power and growing discontent with its authoritarian government.

Police armed with assault rifles fired on protesters outside a factory in Phnom Penh who refused to move and threw bottles, stones, and petrol bombs at police, Reuters reports.

Chuon Narin, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, confirmed the death toll, but told The Wall Street Journal that he blamed “gangsters” and “anarchists” for starting the violence and said police were trying to defend themselves.

Tens of thousands of garment workers have been striking since Dec. 24. They are demanding that the garment industry’s minimum wage be raised from $80 to $160 a month. The government has increased its initial offer of $95 to $100 a month, but says it will not raise it higher.

The violence comes as garment factory workers have joined opposition leaders in antigovernment protests against the nearly three-decade long rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Last Sunday, tens of thousands of people rallied against the prime minister and another rally is planned for this Sunday, according to The New York Times:

The week of protests represents a surprisingly robust threat to the rule of Mr. Hun Sen, whose party tightly controls the police, the military, the judiciary and much of the news media.

Tension has been brewing since Hun Sen won reelection in July in the closest election in nearly two decades. Opposition leaders and several independent organizations claim the election was tainted by fraud, as the Monitor reported at the time:

The Cambodian wing of Transparency International, a global corruption research group, called for an investigation, saying that 60 percent of polling stations had complaints from voters who said they were not on voter lists.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been courting garment workers, Reuters reports, by promising to raise the minimum wage to $160 if his party wins a re-do of the July election. Hun Sen has so far refused to accede to the opposition’s demand for new elections.

Cambodia's $5 billion garment industry spans some 800 factories and 600,000 workers, according to labor officials. Labor costs are cheaper in Cambodia than in many of its neighbors, and manufacturers including Gap, Adidas, Nike, and Puma outsource work to Cambodian factories.

Strikes are common, especially this year, reports the Wall Street Journal:

Garment workers mounted 131 strikes from January to November, up from 121 for all of 2012, according to the garment manufacturers’ association, making 2013 the most strike-prone year since record-keeping started in 2003.

As the Monitor reported in July, Cambodia under Hun Sen has seen strong economic growth, but remains one of Asia's poorest countries.

Once synonymous with the mass murders of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, (the country) has seen an average 7 percent growth, powered by donor aid, clothing exports, and Chinese investment. Cambodia is still one of Asia's poorest countries, with 80 percent of the population working the land and income levels around the same as fellow garment-export hub Bangladesh.

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