The 23

The Fight.

The approximately 200000 garment workers joined a strike on December 24 2013.decrying Labour Advisory Committee proposal USD 95 minimum wage issued on December 17, 2013.  By December 25th around 273 garment factories in Phnom Penh had shot down their production as the workers walked off to join the strike. Six garment unions in Cambodia, Coaliation of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), National Independent Federation of Textile Union in Cambodia (NIFTUC), Collective unions of Movement of Workers (CUMW), and Cambodia Confederation of Union (CCU) call the workers to join the strike demanding USD 160 minimum wage. During the last week of December 2013, the city was colored with workers pouring to the streets and Ministry of Labour airing their demand on minimum wage hike. The strike went peacefully.

Workers from other industries like service and food industries, association of informal economy workers, human rights activists and Buddhist monks joined the strike and expressed their solidarity support. Besides the scene of general strike coloring the city, at the freedom park, opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had occupied the park with its thousands supporters demanding investigation over election irregularities. General strike, political deadlock and strong demand for change become predominant discourse in the Country.

There were 131 garment factory strikes recorded in the year of 2013. In spite of this garment exports exceeded four billion USD for the first nine months of 2013, which was up 22% from 2012, comprising roughly about 80% of Cambodia’s total export. Nevertheless, reported conditions in factories had worsened, with workers now earning less in real terms than a decade ago. The demands of workers in this industry are of particular importance to all workers in Cambodia.

2014: Powerful movements. Bold brutality.

The crackdown on the peaceful strike was started on December 27, 2013 when police military opened fire to break up the strike at Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone. The violence took place in the morning time was subdued after negotiation that workers blocked the road and opened a street forum demanding wage increase. Meanwhile the strike in front of ministry of labour went peacefully. The number of striking workers kept swelling that thousands of them joined the sit in protest at the Freedom Park doubling the number of people demanding the investigation over election irregularities as solution to ongoing political deadlock.

On December 31, LAC, after series negotiation with union leaders, revised their proposal on minimum wage from USD 95 to USD 100. The unions decided to have a day off on new year day while discussing possibility to continue the strike for USD 160 minimum wage on January 2. After new year holiday, the workers still decried the new proposal of LAC that they insisted to resume the strike. The strike took a fatal turn at Por Sen Chey District, Phnom Penh as workers continued the strike outside Korean owned company, Yakjin, supplier of GAP and Wallmart. Special Force Airborne 911,notorious for its reputation as human rights perpetrator, was deployed to crackdown on the protest.

Special unit 911, with the assistance of police and ‘plain clothed’ thugs, used knives, metal pipes, slingshots, batons, and high powered rifles, including AK-47 machine guns, to intimidate and injure civilians. The 911 unit is under direct national military command. The deployment of this unit on January 2 was the outset of brutal crackdown on strike and protest. The brigade 911 attacked all people on the site including the bystanders. In the afternoon, 15 activists including Mr Vorn Pao, President of IDEA, Theng Savoeun, Coordinator of CCFC, Chan Puthisak Beng Kok Lake land rights activist and 5 monks  (Venerable Meas Vichet, Thach Hasamarn, Kong Rathanak Saray, Lay Leat, and Kim Chan Thorn), 2 garment workers. Vorn Pao and Theng Savoeun were severely beaten during the crackdown. Later at night, the 5 monks were released.

The 10 people were held at the military base with denied access to medical aid and lawyer. At midnight, they were allowed to meet the lawyers and doctor as they were transferred to Phnom Penh court for the first trial on the following day. On January 3, around 200 activists organized a protest in front of Phnom Penh court demanding the release of 10 activists. Around 300 military police, Royal Gendermarie of Khmer (GRK) were deployed to crackdown on the protest. At the same time, the military was deployed to crackdown on strike at Canadia Industrial Zone killing at least 6 workers and severely injured 39 workers. The crackdown did not stop on that day as on the following day, the military crackdown the gathering at the freedom park.

The following day an electoral protest camp of around a thousand people in Freedom Park, set up by the CNRP since December 15th 2013, was forcefully evicted. The aim of the camp had been to call for another election and to demand Hun Sen step down as Prime Minister. Hundreds of police, soldiers, and plain clothed thugs with red arm bands blocked the surrounding roads to the park, and began to move in with metal poles and axe handles to beat, intimidate, and clear protestors. There was no warning to this order given by government and aligned forces. Journalists were also kept from entering the space. On the same day the the Minister of Interior issued a decree that all protests over 10 people would not be allowed. Riot police also became stationed at most garment factories and corners of main streets around Phnom Penh.

On January 3, the number of detainees reached 23, those are 20 garment workers; Chhim Theurn, Yong Sam An, Reth Roatha, Nakry Vanda, Lun San, Teng Chany, Sokun Sombath Piseth, Mam Piseth, Neup Sokhourn, Phang Tren, Ty Sinoun, Heng Ratha, Pang Vanny, Pheurn Da, Cheurn Yong, Ros Sophoan, Prong Sarath, Chea Sarath, Yon Chea and Bou Savith  and three prominent human rights defenders; Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun, and Chan Puthisak.

After the brief appearance of 10 detainees at Phnom Penh court on January 3, the authority had not disclosed the whereabouts and health condition of 23 detainees. Lawyers, families and doctors were denied from accessing all of them including those  savagely beaten by police and soldiers. One arrestee is a juvenile. On the 8th it was announced that the 23 detained had been taken to the Correctional Centre 3 (CC3).

CC3 is located in the remote area of Kampong Cham province, around 200km from Phnom Penh. It is said to be one of the harshest prisons in Cambodia. It is also a prison for convicted adult prisoners, not a place for those only charged, and certainly not for minors. The move to CC3 is specifically calculated to hide the injuries of those beaten. Inside the facility the torture continued inducing fear for families and the movements that they are a part of.

All 23 arrestees face charge of  article 218, ‘intentional violence with aggravating circumstances’ and ‘intentional damage with aggravating circumstances’  with up to 18 months of pretrial detention, five years imprisonment, as well as fines from U.S $1,000 to $2,500. They are now under the direct supervision of the Royal Gendarmerie of Cambodia, a paramilitary branch of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

Tola Moeun, Head of the Community Legal Education Centre labor program stated: “Cambodian authorities appear to have given up any semblance of democracy, rule of law or justice… The big questions are what is next and who will be next? This madness must end now.”


Why these Human Rights defenders were targeted.

Human Rights defenders are systematically targeted in Cambodia. It is no coincident that Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeurn, and Chan Puthisak have been picked out by authorities for detainment and intimidation. They have played prominent role in Cambodia in promoting human rights in Cambodia. Vorn Pao is an experienced workers organizing. He started in organizing work as a garment workers then later he organized informal economy workers. He always involves in defending those whose rights to livelihood and land are deprived by State and private companies. Theng Savoeun is a young activist with experience of organizing the youth and farmer. Chan Puthisak has spent years fighting for rights to land in Beng Kok Lake community, Phnom Penh. Following are their short biographies and their involvement in the workers strike on January 2, 2014.

Theng Savoeun

Mr. Theng Savoeun, 24, was born in Chhouk Sor Village, Chheur Teal Commune, Svay Chrum District, Svay Rieng Province. He is the second son to Mr. Siang Saroeurn and Mrs. Touch Sat with three brothers and one sister. Growing up in the remote area in Svay Chrum Mr. Savoeun completed his studiy at Hun Sen Svay Chrum High School in 2008. He furthered his study at Khmer New World, Phnom Penh. In 2009 he completed an associate degree in law.   Mr. Savoeun sold toys at Kunthabopha Hospital, near Wat Phnom to support his study, and volunteered his time for various advocacy and community organizations such as YCC, KYA, YFP, and Open Forum of Cambodia by becoming a volunteer for youth network in Svay Rieng Province.

 In 2009, Mr. Savoeun worked as an Admin and Organizing Assistant Volunteer at Farmer Association for Peace and Development (FAPD). Having sufficient experience in advocacy and community organizing, Mr. Savoeun founded the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC) in 2011. The Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community aims to protect the rights of people including land and housing rights. It also strives for protection of environment and natural resources from land grabbing by private companies and State.

Theng was arrested by the Special Forces Airborne 911 on January 2, 2014 outside Yakjin Factory during his mission as human rights observer. Savoeun also organized CCFC members to participate in the general strike on December 29, 2013 as a strategy in strengthening cross sector solidarity. Savoeun often presents at garment workers strike to express his solidarity support for the workers.


Vorn Pao

Mr. Vorn Pao, President of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), was born on April 3 , 1975 ( 39 years old ) , at Tropaing Pul Village, Deurm Mien Commune, Prey Chhor District, Kampong Cham Province.  Becoming an orphant at 4 years old, Pao, the youngest out of 5 siblings, lived with his eldest sister, a farmer. Just like other youths in his village, Pao moved to Phnom Penh after graduated from high school in 1997. Finding a job at Rosing  garment factory in Phnom Penh, Vorn Pao soon learned that the workers were deprived from their basic rights.

Determined to struggle for a better working condition, Vorn Pao started organizing the workers and set up a union. He was then elected as  the first union leader at the factory. It was the outset of his engagement to workers movement in Cambodia.  He was dismissed from Rosing Factory in early 2000s due to his activities organizing protests and strikes.

 Unemployed, Vorn Pao earned living by driving motor taxi for over a year. Then he started organizing motor taxi and tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh leading to the founding of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Workers Association (IDEA) in 2005 where he was elected as the President of the association. IDEA, since then, keeps expanding its organizing scope by engaging street vendors and small restaurant workers in Phnom Penh, Kompong Som, Siam Reap and Poipet.

 His commitment and compassion for social justice and democracy in Cambodia drives him to engage further in social and political activities. Under his leadership, IDEA successfully negotiated with Phnom Penh authority in 2009 in securing the livelihood territory of tuk tuk drivers amidst the competition with private taxi companies. Vorn Pao was also active in defending improsoned Beehive radio journalist, Mam Sonando who actively address human rights issues in Cambodia. Vorn Pao always shows his solidarity support for land rights activists and workers struggle in various sectors. In May 2013, Vorn Pao was diagnosed having tumor that could develop into cancer. Local and international activists collected donation for his surgery and medical treatment.

On December 29, 2013, Vorn Pao organized IDEA members to support workers general strike for USD 160 minimum wage. IDEA members also raised their concerns on the increasing price of gasoline and basic goods. Vorn Pao argued that many families of IDEA members worked at garment factories. The involvement of informal economy workers in the general strike strengthened cross sector solidarity in Cambodia.

After new year day off, the general strike continued as the workers refused the government decision on USD 100 minimum wage. Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun (CCFC) and Chan Puthisak, land rights activist from Beng Kok Lake community expressed their solidarity support for striking workers in front of  Korean owned Yakjin Factory in Por Sen Chey District, Phnom Penh on January 2, 2014. On that day, Military Special Forces Airborne 911 was deployed to crack down the protest.

Vorn Pao was severely beaten and held at the military base near Yakjin Factory. On the next day, Vorn Pao and other 9 detainees were sent for the first trial at Phnom Penh court where they were charged under article 218, “Instigating violence under agravating circumstances”. For almost a week after the first trial, the authority undisclosed the whereabouts of all detainess that the number had increased after the crackdown at Canadia Industrial Zone on January 3, 2014. On January 8, the judge told the human rights lawyers that all 23 activists were imprisoned in Correctional Centre (CC) 3 in the remote area in Kompong Cham province. Vorn Pao health has been deterioting due to severe beating during and after the arrest. Meanwhile, the international solidarity demanding the release of 23 activists keeps flowing. In Phnom Penh, the ban for more than 10 people gathering at public places and deployment of hired thugs with dark helmets do not deter activists to continue the protest demanding the release of 23 human rights defenders and workers activists


Mr. Chan Puthisak (40), is a land rights activist from Boeung Kak Community Phum I Village, Sras Chork Commune, Daun Penh District, Phnom Penh. He lives with his wife and a 9 year old daughter. In 2007 the government signed 99-year land lease of Boeng Kak for a development company, Shikoku Inc to develop a condominium complex. The project was initiated by filling Boeng Kak lake with the sand and installment of the pipeline. The project affected around 4000 families living around the lake as they were forcefully evicted from the area. Chan Puthisak then dedicated his life to organize the community against eviction and land grabbing. He and other Boeng Kak activists like Tep Vany and Yorm Bopha bravely aired their persistent demand to reclaim their land. Boeng Kak activists including Chan Puthisak are always active in expressing their solidarity support at workers and community protests in the country. Chan Puthisak also actively promotes human rights of those marginalized in Cambodia.

When the national general election was approaching in July 2013, Puthisal was summoned to attend a meeting with Phnom Penh Governor, Pa Socheat Vong, Hun Maneth and Prime Minister Hun Sen. The meeting was to subdue the struggle of Boeng Kak community. Chan Puthisak refused all the cooptation attempt to subdue the community struggle for their land. He earns respect from the community for that.

On January 2, Chan Puthisak joined the workers strike outside Yakjin Factory to express his solidarity support for the striking workers. Like Vorn Pao and Theng Savoeun, he was beaten and arrested when the Special Forces Airborne 911 was deployed to quash the strike.



A short history of repression against garment workers and freedom of association and expression in Cambodia.

 Despite Cambodia being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with many of the articles contained in this being enshrined and recently ratified in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia itself, the enforcement of human rights in the country is historically and blatantly weak. Cambodia is also a country that has ratified all ILO conventions, however, workers rights to collective bargaining and union are highly questioned.

In February 2012, the local governor of the Svay Rieng province, Chhouk Bandith, opened fire on striking workers at Manhattan Special Economic Zone seriously injuring three of them. Chhouk Bandith has never been arrested despite the verdict by Appeal Court in 2013 ordering him to pay 38 million riel compensation for the three victims. July 2012, Rong Panha, a member of Cambodia Confederation of Union (CCU) was beaten and arrested while peacefully protesting with workers at the Tai Nan Factory. In May 2013, military police used electric batons against striking garment workers at Sabrina Factory  in the Kampong Speu province. 50 people were injured, one worker was beaten unconscious, and two women suffered miscarrages. In November military and police discharged live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters to striking workers from SL Factory in the Meanchey District. A local street vender, a bystander, was gunned down, with 9 more suffering gunfire wounds. A street vendor is now paralysed for life.

In the past years we have witnessed unbearable level of violence against workers rights to assembly and strike. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Free Trade Union leader, Chea Vichea who was gunned down by mysterious man on motorcycle. Who killed Chea Vichea remains a mystery. This does not include the killing of environment activist, Chut Wutty in 2012 and the imprisonment of land rights and human rights activists. Within 20 years, 11 journalists killed in Cambodia. In all violence cases in Cambodia, the perpetrators have enjoyed impunity that they skipped all legal punishment. The government also went ballistic threatening and intimidating international agencies and organizations challenging the systemic violence situation in Cambodia.


What next?

 In enforcing the ban on public gathering, the government deployed untrained security guards and thugs with dark helmets acting as public order police breaking up any protests and arresting activists. The municipal authority later argued that the security guards were hired from private company. The recent statement from government stated that they would stop hiring guards from private company. Instead, they would mobilize the unemployed to be “more trained” public order paramilitia.

Defying orders against public protest, on January the 5th, five well-known Boeng Kak rights activists marched to submit a petition for the release of the 23 human rights defenders and workers to 5 different embassies and the European Union and World Bank offices were detained for almost 12 hours. The security with dark helmets also broke up a peaceful praying gathering for the release of the 23 on Sisowath Quay on January 19. They also broke up a peaceful protest demanding the release of the 23 and arrested 17 activists on January 21. Sok Chhun Oeung, ad interim President of IDEA, was arrested and detained  for 17 hours after peaceful praying gathering on January 19. The eleven activists arrested on January 22 were detained for 5-10 hours. Another protest is planed to be held on January 26 attended by unions, human rights groups, land rights activists and monks network for social justice.

The future of democracy in Cambodia, obviously, is something to fight for. Systemic violence is made possible by the curtailing of people’s political rights by State. The recent violence, considered as the harshest in the 15 years of Cambodia history, reflected the diminishing rights to freedom of association and expression in Cambodia. The economic growth is actually superficial growth benefitting investors and powerful individuals within State system while impoverishing people by dispossessing them from their land, means of production and legal and political rights. The demands to release 23 human rights defenders and workers, paying workers with USD 160 minimum wage, ending violence measures and providing justice for the victims should be seen in the context of making steps toward reclaiming political rights to freedom of association and expression.


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