A government committee charged with assessing damage from the garment worker protests in December and January has put the value of the destruction at over $250,000. It places blame squarely on the opposition CNRP and a trio of union leaders.
Both the government and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) have blamed the opposition and unions for the damage since garment worker protests for a higher minimum wage peaked on January 2 and 3. The protests came to a bloody and abrupt end on January 3 after military police shot indiscriminately into a crowd outside a Phnom Penh factory, killing five and injuring more than 40.
The government quickly set up three ad-hoc committees to investigate the events, including one under Interior Minister Sar Kheng to assess property damage.
That committee’s report, released Thursday, values damage to public and private property in Phnom Penh—minus the garment factories themselves—at $275,688. It also says that GMAC calculates that the protests caused $72 million in damage to 95 of its member factories. This figure includes $42.2 million in lost production and $17.3 million in property damage.
GMAC officials could not be reached for comment.
The report from Mr. Kheng’s committee also tallies up other damage: 40 items at a private clinic, 45 items at a motorbike repair shop, 39 items at a cafe, 32 items at a noodle shop, 40 wooden stalls, and eight CPP signs. It also claims that 35 civilians were injured over the two days of clashes, along with 45 police and military police.
The report puts the death toll at four. Witnesses and rights groups say a 16-year-old boy is also missing and presumed dead after he was last seen on January 3 lying on the ground and bleeding heavily from a chest wound. Authorities claim no knowledge of his condition or whereabouts.
The report blames the damage on the unions, and on the CNRP for inciting garment workers to take part in “illegal” demonstrations.
“The illegal demonstrations led by the Cambodia National Rescue Party was a premeditated, provocative act intended to topple the legal government by inciting anarchy, violence and clashes with competent authorities, resulting in deaths and injured forces and civilians and a number of people arrested,” it says.
“During the demonstrations, the leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and its groups (unions, associations and some NGOs) incited, lobbied and appealed to civil servants, workers and the armed forces to join its demonstrations against the legal government and demand a re-election, that Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] step down and a $160 minimum wage,” the report says.
To try to show an alleged link between the CNRP and the violence and damage, the report cites a few occasions on which party officials—including President Sam Rainsy, Vice President Kem Sokha and senior member Mu Sochua—publicly called on workers to strike and demonstrate. As even more proof of incitement, it notes one occasion on December 31 when senior CNRP member Ho Vann was handing out bread to protesting garment workers blocking a Phnom Penh road.
The report also blames union leaders Rong Chhun, Yang Sophorn and Ath Thorn for urging garment workers to leave their factories and join the strikes.
It cites no occasion on which any of them specifically instructed anyone to do something violent. In fact, the unions and the opposition have consistently urged their supporters to refrain from violence.
Asked what proof the committee had directly linking the unions and opposition to the violence, General Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, would only refer back to the report.
“You can read all the report and you will see,” he said. “They mention [it] in the report.”
Gen. Sopheak said he did not know if the report was preparation for a lawsuit against the CNRP leaders, or whether the opposition would be asked to pay for any of the damage.
“To pay back or not is not the competence of the ministry, it is up to the court,” he said.
Opposition leaders could not be reached for comment.
However, they have always denied the incitement allegations. The CNRP, backed up by several local and international rights groups, blames the deaths and damage on the authorities, charging there was a disproportionate response to the protests.
While the CNRP has so far avoided being sued over the protests, six union leaders, including the three in Mr. Kheng’s committee report, are being sued for damages by the factories.
Ms. Sophorn, one of the six, dismissed the figures in the committee report.
“The Ministry of Interior carried out the investigation and released the figures on the damages without participation from any independent body,” she said. “If the committee was independent, with independent investigators, I would agree.”
Ms. Sophorn said some CNRP officials may have joined their protests for a higher minimum wage, but had no part in organizing them.
GMAC lawyer Khieu Sambo said 177 factories have now joined the lawsuits against the unions and that the cases were still under investigation.
Twenty-three people arrested on January 2 and 3 have also been charged with intentional violence and property damage with aggravating circumstances.
The first three, Chea Sarath, Bou Sarith and Yon Sok Chea, go on trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on April 18, according to rights group Licadho, which is providing them with lawyers.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter)
naren@cambodiadaily.com
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