Quiet Affair Marks Anniversary of Veng Sreng

There were no workers or activists marching on Tuesday on Veng Sreng Boulevard, where three years ago military police killed five protesting garment workers and injured some 40 more in what rights groups called the worst state violence against civilians in 15 years.

Rather than attempt to gather in the area as they did last year, when mourners were met with heavy-handed tactics by government forces, a small group of those involved in the protests met on Tuesday at the modest office building of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) in Sen Sok district.

Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, stands outside his organization’s building in Phnom Penh on Tuesday on the third anniversary of a fatal crackdown against rioting garment factory workers on Veng Sreng Boulevard. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Union leaders agreed that any effort to rally workers for an anniversary ceremony would likely be suppressed by the government, which arbitrarily decides who may publicly protest and has shown particular sensitivity to efforts to call attention to the Veng Sreng shootings.

“We see the political situation is quiet, so we don’t want to…start a fire,” said Far Saly, head of the National Trade Union Coalition, adding that the government would probably stop them regardless of the political climate.

“Even if we do it, the government…will crack down on us,” he said.

On January 3, 2014, hundreds of military police armed with AK-47 assault rifles descended on Veng Sreng, where a group of workers had formed a blockade across the road and armed themselves with stones and Molotov cocktails. When police approached and fell under a hail of stones, they began indiscriminately firing into the crowd.

The violence ended one of the largest labor strikes to ever hit the country’s crucial garment industry, much of which had completely closed down without workers and with protests raging outside factory gates.

At Tuesday’s event, journalists appeared to outnumber other guests, which included victims and the families of some who died.

Among the crowd was Khem Soeun, whose teenage son Khem Sophath has since been presumed dead, last seen bleeding from the chest and being dragged into a truck by military police.

Mr. Soeun said he wanted to know what happened to his son. “But I don’t have any power to tell authorities to find him,” he said.

After a brief blessing ceremony, IDEA President Vorn Pov, who was beaten, arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in the 2014 protests, was among those who delivered a brief speech.

Mr. Pov said the repression of last year’s Veng Sreng anniversary had deterred him from holding a ceremony there this year.

“We saw last year there was a crackdown and City Hall banned it, so we are forced to hold it at our place,” he said. “For other unions not marking it, it’s their rights or it depends on the situation, but for me I have to hold it because I was a victim.”

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