After Clashes, Garment Workers Flee Veng Sreng Street
By and | January 6, 2014

The few remaining residents of Phnom Penh’s garment factory-lined Veng Sreng Street, where government forces armed with assault rifles shot dead five striking workers on Friday, said Sunday that most workers had since fled in fear for their lives.

Battlefield soldiers from the military’s Brigade 70 unit in trucks and machine-gun-mounted jeeps patrolled the stretch of road over the weekend, as overflowing green minivans ferried workers to the safety of their family homes in the provinces.

Khieu Khorn, 56, who owns a three-story residential building that military police attempted to storm on Friday, said that the 43 garment workers who rented rooms from him had all returned to their family homes since the end of the violence.

“I don’t think many are going to come back to even collect their salaries,” Mr. Khorn said. “Most believe that if they come back, the government may shoot at them again.”

Mr. Khorn pointed to walls and windows that had been shattered by bullets from the police, who he said had been frustrated by their inability to enter his well-secured building.

On another street leading off Veng Sreng, near where a reporter on Friday witnessed a striker being beaten by military police and then hauled away in a body bag, a block of 20 flats bore similar bullet holes along its facade and locked metal doors.

Sok Khom, a 33-year-old garment worker, said she was the last of those renting one of the 2-by-2-meter rooms on the block not to have either fled or been hospitalized since the assault.

“I lay down on the ground when they came through shooting in the houses,” said Ms. Khom, pointing to the bullet-strewn metal door across a small walkway from her room.

“I want to go home too but I don’t have any money. I’m waiting to receive my salary, but I’m not sure they will give it.”

“I’ve never seen this in my life. If two or three men gather on the street, the soldiers approach them and then break them up,” Ms. Khom added.

In the afternoon, a tuk-tuk fitted with a loudspeaker being followed by one of the machine gun-mounted jeeps made laps of the area, with an official reading from a statement informing workers both of a nighttime curfew and of the government’s decision to raise the monthly minimum wage to $100.

The workers had been protesting in the street for an increase in the wage to $160 a month when military police arrived and opened fire in order to disperse them on Friday.

Prum Sopheap, 38, standing with his family near a group of the AK-47-wielding soldiers, confirmed that soldiers were habitually breaking up gatherings of more than two people.

Mr. Sopheap said that he thought that about 90 percent of workers living around Veng Sreng had fled in fear.

The estimate was repeated verbatim by more than a dozen other workers, with most saying they too would flee if they had the money and were waiting to receive salaries.

The area, home to the Vattanac and Canadia industrial parks, produces garments for the Adidas, Puma and H&M brands.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, estimated that about 100 garment factories around Veng Sreng employ roughly 100,000 workers, but said he thought that only about half had left for the provinces.

Pang Samnang, 30, and her sister, Pang Sreymom, 21, said they wanted to leave the area too, but had no family home to return to. Ms. Samnang said police had raided their houses on Friday evening and taken away their 38-year-old brother, Vanny.

“On Saturday morning I called him, and he said ‘I’m in a rush going somewhere but I don’t know where I am going,’ and that was the last that I had heard from him,” Ms. Samnang said.

“He was my breadwinner. Now I have no one.”

Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating Judge Keo Mony confirmed that 13 striking workers on Veng Sreng Street had been arrested by military police on Friday and charged on Saturday with the intentional destruction of property under aggravating circumstances.

On the street, amid the ruins of houses riddled with bullet marks, and windows and doors smashed in by military police officers, Pol Vuth, 23, said he too would leave when he received his salary and would not return until soldiers withdrew.

“They still have their repressive forces but there’s no more workers left here. Who do they want to crack down on?” he asked.

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Despite government efforts this week to stop land protesters from flooding into the capital to seek help from national-level authorities, dozens of aggrieved villagers involved in land disputes protested once again in Phnom Penh on Friday.

In the early 1970s, Soy Sen, the illegitimate son of a local official, lived with his grandmother in a tiny house here. Too poor to attend school past the second grade, he spent his days running free through his family’s small rice field as he tended cattle.

Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court on Friday released on bail five villagers at the center of a high-profile land dispute with the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem. The villagers’ arrests had sparked a series of recent protests in Phnom Penh.

Two men were arrested in Prey Veng province on Friday for repeatedly dunking a 14-year-old boy’s head in a container of water after he apparently stole four coconuts from their property, according to local police officials.

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