Armed soldiers will continue to patrol Veng Sreng Street, the garment factory-lined thoroughfare in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district where military police shot dead five workers during a nationwide strike last month, until labor unrest in the garment sector subsides, the deputy commander of the military’s Brigade 70 said on Tuesday.
Soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Brigade 70 and Brigade 99, who openly carry AK-47 assault rifles and were first deployed to the area after last month’s lethal strike suppressions, have maintained an ominous presence along the street since a union-led boycott of overtime hours began Monday.
“We deployed our forces to provide security both for the people and workers, and for the confidence of investors,” said General Hem Tha, the deputy commander of Brigade 70, when asked about the presence of his forces along the street Tuesday.
“When the situation has returned to normal, we will return them to their units,” he added, declining to elaborate on how this would be determined.
Workers leaving factories at the end of their shifts at 4 p.m. Wednesday, many of whom witnessed military police lethally repress garment strikes last month, said they were under no illusions as to the purpose of the soldiers.
“Sometimes when we leave early, they ask why,” said Vun Itan, 27, who said she was taking part in the overtime boycott but was worried about the ability of the unions to follow through on plans for a full-fledged second nationwide strike next month.
“Some people won’t dare to protest anymore because they are too afraid. When the soldiers come out, everybody freaks out.”
“We’re in a difficult situation,” said Khum Barang, 24, echoing the sentiments of other workers leaving their shifts.
“We are afraid because we know they will shoot at us,” he said, but “if the rest strike, we have to join them.”
Inside Canadia Industrial Park, which was at the heart of the protests on Veng Sreng Street last month, a unit from Brigade 99 has set up a small station in an alleyway between two factories.
“If you go in there, there will be a big problem,” a soldier keeping watch over the station told reporters passing by, declining to answer questions about the continued military presence.
“We’re just here to provide security,” the soldier said.
Along Veng Sreng Street, a soldier who identified himself as the leader of a Brigade 70 unit, but who asked not be named, said his forces were well aware of the renewed plans for strikes.
“We’ve heard the situation may not continue to be so good,” he said, sitting at a cafe across from the industrial park.
“There are authorities along the road, and if there are problems elsewhere, we will go there…and tell them to scatter.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said the military presence was intimidating but could not prevent a second nationwide strike.
“There will not be a problem, since the workers can just stay at home,” said Mr. Thorn. “It could be a problem if the workers try to rally or march, but there are no plans for that yet.”
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