By now you’ve heard that military police in Cambodia killed five garment workers demanding a living wage of $160 per month in the early days of 2014, but only some of this is true.
Here’s a slightly more accurate version: On Tuesday, December 24, during a period of nationwide political unrest, the Cambodian government announced a raise of $15 to garment workers’ monthly minimum wage of $80, for a new total of $95 per month, to start in April, 2014. Workers responded the next day by walking off jobs and demanding the current wage be doubled, for a new monthly wage of $160.
The next few days saw the largest demonstrations in the country’s history. Tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – gathered. Protesters were holding demonstrations all over the city: stopping work, blocking roads, holding rallies. The mood of these events was primarily jubilant, although there was a dark side. Numbers of demonstrators continued to swell.
On January 3, in one of Cambodia’s several special economic zones, protesters gathered around 9 AM. At that time, as striking worker Kha Sei recalls, “The workers, who work with the garments, they stop working and they have the marching and dancing.” He’s a young man in a bright red T-shirt, and he is livid. “Then the police come by truck and take out the guns and then fight the dancers.”
Hundreds of military police lined up along Veng Sreng street, where Kha Sei and I are standing. He mimics their actions and points to the sky. Helicopters, still a rare sight in the developing nation, had buzzed overhead that day. Standard AK-47s – common enough since the Khmer Rouge days only 35 years go – mixed in with newer Norinco Type 97A assault rifles. The MPs wore shiny new riot gear. The crowd threw rocks and sticks; the police fired warning shots over the heads of protesters. The crowd responded with crude Molotov cocktails. Police answered with live rounds, killing at least five, injuring more than 40 and arresting 23. Kha Sei watched a coworker die, then another striker was hit. The young man (who would not give his family name) helped carry one gunshot victim to a nearby medical clinic. For a short time, it was war, waged upon and by folks who still remember the trauma of the Khmer Rouge.
What you’ve been told is that this is about the struggle for living wages in the garment factories. It’s not. In fact, the needs of garment workers have barely been addressed, their bodies put to service toward a larger political agenda. Meanwhile, their struggles are only some among many in rapidly changing Cambodia.
Rainsy’s Bid for Power
That’s the day Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia after four years in France. It had been his second self-imposed exile since being elected to the National Assembly in 1998; the first was undertaken to avoid serving time over specious defamation charges he faced after accusing the ruling party of corruption. In 2009, he’d been accused of racial incitement and destruction of property after leading a protest at the border with Vietnam. A mid-July pardon from King Norodom Sihanomi allowed his return to the country in advance of the general elections, although his July 22 application to stand as leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was rejected. His request to be reinstated to the National Assembly, dominated by the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), also was denied.
The CPP, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, claimed victory in the July 28 general elections, with 68 parliamentary seats out of 123. (The CPP’s 2008 win had secured 90 of 123 seats.) Few expressed surprise; Cambodia had been ruled by Hun Sen for nearly 30 years and, prior to that, the leader had been involved in every ruling body in the country’s history, including the Khmer Rouge. Still, corruption runs rampant in Cambodian politics and many did express concern. Election observers noted inconsistencies; the victory, they suggested, may have been ill-won. No official population measurement system exists in Cambodia, so polls were all estimates, and individual voters were untracked across precincts. That votes were cast under alternative names seems possible; cast votes were marked with indelible ink, a donation from the Indian Embassy that is easily removed with lime juice.
Key to election-result skepticism was the overwhelming support for the CNRP cause shown by garment workers. A campaign promise to raise their minimum wage to $150 had proven compelling, and the vast majority of the country’s 400,000 garment workers were believed to have cast votes for the opposition. Although garment workers make up less than 3 percent of the country’s population, their incomes directly support a full 20 percent of its residents, and their labor facilitates the third-largest industry in Cambodia (also keeping the second-largest, agriculture, afloat on their wages). They are, in other words, influential. (The CNRP pledge in March had an immediate effect, prompting the government to raise the minimum wage from $61 to $75.) The CNRP began to question the victory the day after the elections, calling for independent investigations into widespread voting fraud. On July 31, Rainsy announced that the CNRP won a majority of the National Assembly, with 63 seats, leaving eight seats in dispute, although little evidence was offered. Human Rights Watch released a statement alleging voter fraud by the CPP. When Hun Sen dismissed the dispute and vowed to lead the new government on August 2, Rainsy requested the United Nations step in to resolve the deadlock and, a week later, threatened nationwide protests. Hun Sen deployed troops and armored personnel carriers in Phnom Penh in response. “We are not afraid,” Rainsy answered August 7, warning of mass demonstrations.