PHNOM PENH: Cambodian police opened fire on protesting garment workers on Friday, leaving at least three people dead, as the kingdom’s strongman premier faced growing public anger on the streets of the capital.
Workers armed with sticks, rocks and Molotov cocktails clashed with rifle-wielding police in the Veng Sreng factory district of Phnom Penh, according to an AFP photographer.
Police fired warning shots in the air and then fired at the protesters, the photographer saw.
“Three people died and two were injured,” Phnom Penh deputy police commissioner Chuon Narin told AFP.
One blood-soaked worker was seen lying on the ground while another was rushed away by motorcycle after what was the latest in a series of violent clashes between security forces and textile workers demanding higher wages.
Prime Minister Hun Sen faces a growing challenge to his nearly three-decade rule from protesting garment workers and opposition supporters demanding that he step down and call a new election because of alleged vote fraud.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy denounced the crackdown.
“It’s an unacceptable attempt to break not only a worker strike but the whole worker movement as well as the democratic movement which is developing in Cambodia following the July elections,” he told AFP.
Rights activist Chan Soveth of local rights group Adhoc, who was at the site, said as many as 10 strikers were badly injured.
Security forces “used rifles and other things to crack down on the strikers,” he said. “They beat them on their heads.”
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said the crackdown came after nine policemen were injured by stones and slingshots.
He said two protesters were arrested.
“We were afraid about the security so we had to crack down on them,” said Kheng Tito. “If we allow them to continue the strike it will become anarchy.” Disputes over wages and safety conditions are common in Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment industry which supplies brands like Gap, Nike and H&M.
The sector employs about 650,000 people and is a key source of foreign income for the impoverished country.
The workers are demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month.
The latest clash came a day after a special military unit was deployed against garment workers, leaving several injured in a move described by rights activists as a “disturbing new tactic” by the authorities.
Soldiers were seen brandishing metal pipes, knives, AK47 rifles, slingshots and batons at the scene of Thursday’s protest, according to local rights groups.
The use of the special military command unit to suppress the protest “is unprecedented and signals a disturbing new tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests”, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) said in a statement.
There have been daily rallies in Phnom Penh against Hun Sen’s government recently, with an estimated 20,000 or more opposition supporters taking to the streets on Sunday.
The opposition party has boycotted parliament since a disputed July election. It plans a major three-day protest starting from Sunday.
Parliament in late September approved a new five-year term for Hun Sen, in a move decried by the opposition as a “constitutional coup”.
Hun Sen — a 61-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia’s rise from the ashes of war — has ruled for 28 years, and has vowed to continue until he is 74.
Last month he ruled out holding a new election and rejected opposition calls for him to step down.
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