It’s been three years, but the emotion is still palpable when Khim Souern talks about the morning of January 3, 2014.
“Our son got killed as if he were a dog, maybe even worse than a dog, because we could not find his body,” the 42-year-old said yesterday.
Souern’s son, Khim Saphath, was one of five garment workers believed to have been shot dead by security forces that day as wage protests paralysed Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard.
But as raw as the emotion still is for Saphath, unionists and labour advocates yesterday said that same trauma had extended to industrial relations as a whole, dampening the potential for any future mass demonstrations like the one at Veng Sreng.
The violent January 3 crackdown was preceded a day earlier by security personnel violently dispersing peaceful protesters from Canadia Industrial Park, leading workers to stage roadblocks and burn tyres on the street.
The next day, military and police forces moved in with live ammunition and cleared the arterial road with brute force – about 10 days after workers had taken to the streets in rejection of a minimum wage hike from $80 to $95, a figure they said was far short of the $160 they had demanded.
At least four people were killed in the ensuing violence. Saphath is only presumed dead, as his body was never located, though one eyewitness told rights group Licadho they saw the teen shot in the chest and taken away by security forces, never to be seen again.
The shootings had a dramatic effect on the psyche of Cambodian workers, said Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association.
“Veng Sreng created a psychological intimidation against the union movement and the workers’ commitment to strike,” he said. Indeed, the momentum and energy that had pushed thousands of workers into the streets was stopped dead in its tracks.
Pov himself was badly beaten on January 2, taken into custody and charged with intentional violence after attempting to ease tensions between workers and security forces outside the Yak Jin garment factory on National Road 4 – a separate site of wage protests.
By that point, the industrial unrest had become conflated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s ongoing demonstrations against the 2013 election results, with CNRP leader Sam Rainsy throwing the weight of the opposition behind the workers’ demands for a $160 wage. Indeed, a day after the shootings on Veng Sreng, Daun Penh security guards descended on Freedom Park, violently dispersing a peaceful sit-in by opposition supporters.
Whatever the wisdom of the CNRP’s move to join forces with the union movement, the blame for what followed lays in one place, according to Pov. “The violence was neither instigated by the CNRP or the unions,” he said. “It was the government who chose to open fire on the workers.”
Pov’s sentiments were echoed by Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, who said witnessing the brutal violence firsthand had led to reduced worker participation in consequent protests.
Thorn was one of five union leaders charged almost eight months after the protests for intentional violence, incitement and creating public disorder. The case has never gone to trial.
Labour advocate Moeun Tola also maintained that the shadow of Veng Sreng had a psychological impact on workers, and noted that such could be the case for some time to come.
“I don’t think it is about the union leaders [being unwilling to strike] specifically, but actually it is the workers,” he said yesterday. “Those killings on Veng Sreng have affected workers. Unions might find it difficult to convince workers to protest again like that.”
But since the killings, Tola said, unions have also been constrained by other means. “I think it’s not only about Veng Sreng,” he said. “The court cases against union leaders and the Trade Union Law [passed on April 2] are elements that have changed the unions.”
Three years on, Tola said unions who often have little in their playbook beyond “hitting the street” are now in need of a different kind of strategy to address their factory floor concerns.
“They need to restrategise, because when we talk about a struggle, it is not only on the streets,” he said. “They have to also find other ways to pressure manufacturers to meet their demands.”
Unions and families of the deceased will hold a commemoration ceremony today to mark the killings. Similar to last year, City Hall yesterday issued a statement refusing to allow any ceremonies on Veng Sreng itself, adding that it would create “traffic congestion and affect public order.”