At LEAST four people were killed yesterday when police in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers demanding double the minimum wage.
Chuon Narin, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, said the four were killed and about 20 others wounded in a southern suburb after several hundred workers blocking a road began burning tyres and throwing objects at officers.
Witnesses said some officers fired AK-47 rifles into the air and others shot at ground level.
Workers at most of Cambodia’s more than 500 garment factories are on strike, demanding an increase in the minimum wage to £97 a month, double the current rate. The government has offered £60 a month.
The local human rights group LICADHO said at least four civilians were shot dead and 21 injured in what it described as “the worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years”.
The statement said that security forces used live ammunition to shoot directly at civilians.
It added: “The use of live ammunition was prolonged and no efforts appear to have been made to prevent death and serious injury. Reports suggest that security forces were also injured after being hit with stones.”
It was not clear whether those killed were workers or residents who had joined in the protest.
Mr Chuon said: “They are anarchists, they have destroyed private and state property. That is why our forces need to chase them out.”
The protesters were moved from the street, at least temporarily, by early afternoon.
The violence comes at a time of political stress in the country, with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party holding daily protests calling for prime minister Hun Sen to step down and call elections.
Mr Hun Sen won elections last July that extended his 28-year rule in the south-east Asian nation, but opposition protesters accuse him of rigging the vote. Mr Hun Sen has rejected their accusations.
Although the wage and election issues are not directly linked, the opposition has close ties with the country’s labour movement. Last Sunday, many workers joined a massive political rally organised by the opposition.
The workers represent a potent political force, because the garment industry is Cambodia’s biggest export earner, employing about 500,000 people. In 2012, Cambodia shipped more than £2.4 billion worth of products to Europe and the US.
The site of yesterday’s clash was strewn with debris. Walls bore holes apparently caused by bullets.
Mak Vin, a 25-year-old worker, said he was among those protesting for more than a week over the wage issue. He said that yesterday morning, as the workers burned car tyres and shouted slogans, “hundreds” of armed police arrived and opened fire.
He added: “They fired live bullets directly at us. I was very scared.”
There had been an earlier clash overnight, with no known fatalities.
Mr Mak said the workers were protesting for higher wages, and would return to work once that demand was met.
He said most workers were not cowed by the shooting, and would continue their strike.
One measure of the seriousness of the situation was an unusual statement issued by the defence ministry affirming the military’s loyalty to the government.
The statement said the army would take whatever action was necessary to defend the government, the king and the constitution.
Yesterday’s confrontation followed a similar one a day earlier at a different location, in which elite troops broke up a demonstration outside a factory, beating demonstrators and arresting ten people, including Buddhist monks, according to witnesses from human rights groups. Violent suppression of social and political protest has not been unusual under Mr Hun’s Sen’s authoritarian government, but there have been few incidents in recent years where more than one person has been killed.
The authorities also usually shy away from using live ammunition in Phnom Penh, where the population is largely hostile to the government.
The standoff over wages presents Mr Hun Sen with a dilemma, as increasing violence could drive the workers into a tighter alliance with the opposition, providing a vast pool of people for its increasingly confident street demonstrations. But the government is also close to the factory owners, whose exports fuel the economy and who are generally seen as financial supporters of Mr Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.