Cambodia: Violent protests boil over in Bavet

Police take cover behind riot shields as garment factory workers throw rocks at them during a protest that turned violent in Bavet yesterday morning.Police take cover behind riot shields as garment factory workers throw rocks at them during a protest that turned violent in Bavet yesterday morning.

23 Dec – Ongoing protests by striking garment workers in the Svay Rieng province town of Bavet spiralled into “anarchy” yesterday after protesters pelted police with rocks, aggravating an already volatile situation and spurring national authorities to begin mediation efforts.

Two military police were injured in the encounter, which took place in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone, according to Ros Tharith, provincial administration director.

“It became anarchy,” he said.

Police said no arrests were made.

According to Rex Lee, manager of the Manhattan SEZ, some 5,000 protesters gathered in the zone yesterday morning as part of an ongoing strike action that has rocked several SEZs in Bavet.

The incidents began at about 8:15am and lasted about an hour and a half. Workers threw rocks at factories and pelted police who had gathered to block them, while police once again utilised hoses from fire trucks to disperse them.

“They threw a rock at my head and my helmet broke and it went through,” military police officer Kaet Cheavon, 31, said as he sat on his hospital bed yesterday.

Cheavon said the protestors essentially “chased” the outnumbered police around the SEZ as there were “too many to arrest”. None of the injuries to police were critical.

The violence is the latest in a string of incidents that have rocked the SEZs since last Wednesday, when 30,000 workers at the Tai Seng and Manhattan SEZs walked out on the job.

The workers are not satisfied with next year’s raise in the minimum wage, demanding a $20 raise from the current rate of $128, $8 more than the $140 rate for 2016 set in October.

Two high-level meetings were held about the unrest yesterday, one in Bavet between employers and unions, who have consistently denied involvement in the protests, and another in Svay Rieng town between national and provincial authorities.

Officials from the meetings condemned the protesters’ violence and urged workers to go back to work. In a bid to smooth relations, Deputy Provincial Governor Hou Vathanak accepted a request from unions to release four workers, arrested on Friday for allegedly throwing rocks at a factory, on condition of bail.

It remains unclear what effect the meetings will have on the ground given that the protesters themselves, whose leaders have not been identified, were not represented.

“Whether the workers come to work or not [today], we do not know,” said Rex Lee, the Manhattan SEZ manager, who added that shady actors were aiming to “destabilise Cambodia”.

Ken Loo, spokesman for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said factories were already in the process of filing injunctions to demand workers return to work or lose their jobs.

“This is just violence, so it’s really up to the government to enforce the law against such violence,” he said.

In a statement released yesterday, the Ministry of Labour blamed the unrest on “anonymous people who incited rumours” creating “chaos, injuries and violence”, and defended the police’s use of force as “peaceful”.

Workers interviewed by the Post yesterday, however, said they still supported the $148 demand.

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