Workers Face Police Gunfire Amid Unrest in Cambodia


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A Cambodian protester carried a wounded worker in Phnom Penh.
Published: January 3, 2014

HONG KONG — Military police officers on Friday fired on protesters demanding higher wages for Cambodian garment workers, killing at least three people, officials said, as protests against the decades-old rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen entered a volatile new phase.

The garment workers are demanding a doubling of their monthly wages, and they have been at the forefront of growing protests against Mr. Hun Sen’s authoritarian government. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people rallied to demand that he step down.

But Friday’s violence south of Phnom Penh, the capital, was a sharp escalation in the unrest. Protesters resisted police efforts to break up the demonstrations, and some threw homemade explosives, setting fire to vehicles, and pelted officers with rocks and other projectiles. As the street battles raged, the police fired live ammunition and smoke canisters to try to quell the disturbances.

Another large opposition rally is planned for Sunday, again intended to turn out tens of thousands of people to force an end to Mr. Hun Sen’s rule. In July, Mr. Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in disputed elections that the opposition and many independent monitoring organizations said were deeply flawed.

The week of protests represents a surprisingly robust threat to the rule of Mr. Hun Sen, whose party tightly controls the police, the military, the judiciary and much of the news media.

Chuon Narin, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, told The Associated Press that the three people who were killed in Friday’s violence died when police officers in a southern suburb of the capital fired AK-47 automatic rifles to clear a road that had been blocked by protesters who were burning tires and throwing objects.

“So far, three are confirmed dead, two injured, and two men were arrested by armed forces,” the deputy police chief said after the morning clash.

Some of the protesters were armed with cleavers and machetes, and at one point they set fire to a health clinic that demonstrators said refused to treat the injured.

One of the people who was shot, Ha Srey Oeun, 28, a garment worker, said she had not been taking part in the protests “because I’m four months pregnant and I was afraid I would be beaten up or struck.”

“I just went to buy some food for lunch,” Ms. Srey Oeun said. “I don’t know why I got shot. I was very far away from the protest group.”

Hospital officials said at least 23 people had been injured in the unrest.

Because of the violence, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party withdrew on Friday from planned talks with the government that were aimed at trying to resolve the crisis. In pulling out of the talks, the group cited the violence against both the garment workers and monks taking part in the protests.

“We condemn the act of violence against the monks, against the workers who are demanding the minimum wage of $160,” Yim Sovann, an incoming opposition lawmaker,told The Phnom Penh Post. The garment workers currently receive a monthly minimum of $80.

Friday’s violence was an outgrowth of protests that began Thursday night, and police officers began moving in after midnight, only to be repelled by the demonstrators. The violent turn in the protests and the forceful police response have raised fears that the situation will spin out of control in the prelude to Sunday’s planned demonstration.

The capital has been rattled by labor unrest in recent days, with labor leaders calling a national strike last week because of anger over the government’s latest minimum-wage proposal. The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest source of export earnings, and the labor movement to increase wages in the sector is closely aligned with the political opposition to Mr. Hun Sen’s government, providing a deep well of support for the demonstrations.

A version of this article appears in print on January 4, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers Face Police Gunfire Amid Unrest In Cambodia.

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