Cambodia’s ‘Tahrir Square’

Protests against the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are reaching a boiling point.

Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images
Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — San Sokhan heard the military police shouting, "Beat the men!" as they swarmed into the worker dormitories on the Suntex garment factory compound on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. On the morning of Friday, Jan. 3, he was in his wife’s sister’s room when a man in camouflage and a dark green helmet kicked open the metal door. He remembers his wife shrieking and the blunt force of a baton, and then all was black. When he awoke, his head and chest were covered in blood and he was lying on the street outside, next to a row of dead bodies. "They thought I was dead, too," he told me.

Slowly, painfully, San tried to sit up. He doesn’t remember fully what happened next, but someone brought the skinny 24-year-old to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where he underwent surgery and got stitches on the back of his head. His only offense had been joining the union-led strike for garment workers — to raise their minimum monthly wage from $85 to $160 — an act that prompted the worst state violence against civilians in 15 years.

When I met him four days later at the crowded clinic, his wife, 21-year-old Ean Rasmey, was sitting beside his bed on a little blue plastic stool, holding his thin hand. "I worry about his brain and about how well he will recover," she said. "I don’t have anyone else to support the family and our baby son." Nith Pov, another garment worker who witnessed the police raid near his dormitory, told me: "Once again, Cambodians are killing Cambodians."

When military police wielding batons and tear gas opened fire with AK-47s on striking garment workers in early January — killing at least six and badly injuring dozens more — the poor Southeast Asian country of 15 million people best known for the murderous regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s leapt back into international headlines. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled since 1985.* Now, with growing domestic unrest stemming from public anger at suspected election fraud, endemic corruption, and rampant rural land-grabbing, he faces arguably his greatest challenge.

When Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed victory in July, the opposition party, which has been holding large demonstrations at the millennia-old temple complex of Angkor Wat, refused to take up its congressional seats. Since then, broad sectors of Cambodian society have joined in frequent protests in Phnom Penh calling for an electoral recount and for the autocratic Hun Sen to leave office. At rallies, the chorus of chanted slogans ranges from "Change the government!" to "Hun Sen, step down!", from "End corruption!" to "Increase our salary!"*

On the same day San was beaten, tensions rose after police arrested 23 nonprofit and union leaders and workers near factory grounds and in their homes, on dubious charges of inciting violence; they remain in prison without trial. The following day, military police cleared hundreds of pro-union and anti-government protesters out of a public park called Freedom (or Democracy) Square — the word in Khmer, the language spoken by the vast majority of the population, has both meanings. In response to the sustained anti-government campaign, the government on Jan. 4 banned all public gatherings of more than 10 people. For three weeks, the square sat largely empty, its perimeters attended by heavily armed police in lawn chairs playing cards.

In mid-January, I met Mu Sochua, one of the most recognizable leaders and impassioned voices of the opposition party, in a hallway of Preah Ang Duong Hospital in Phnom Penh. Wearing a demure white blouse and black slacks, she resembles a Cambodian Aung San Suu Kyi — only she spent 18 years in exile instead of as a political prisoner. She had come to visit Keang Sinak, a 21-year-old garment worker shot in the eye by police on Jan. 3. He was sitting upright in bed, a gauze patch over his left eye as he awaited surgery to remove bullet shrapnel. His mother had come from their modest village home, where she had sold everything she could to raise money for his operation, but was still a few hundred dollars short. (Charity donations allowed him to have surgery a few days later.) Mu was painfully aware of how quickly a moment of national optimism and defiance had turned tragic. Freedom Square, she said, had become like Egypt’s Tahrir Square — an analogy full of both promise and peril.

On Sunday, Jan. 26, Freedom Square filled once again. Nine unions — representing workers, teachers, civil servants, and other trades — had requested permission to hold a demonstration for the release of the 23 people in police custody. The Interior Ministry denied the request, calling it an attempt to "overthrow the government." But hundreds of people came anyway, among them garment workers, Buddhist monks, supporters of the main opposition party, and radio station owner Mam Sonando, who demanded the right to establish an independent TV network in a country where much of the influential media is government-controlled. Police tried to block demonstrators from entering the square. It’s not clear how the violence began, but police and protesters threw stones at each other, and security forces threatened the crowd with batons and stun guns. At least eight people were injured before police dispersed the crowd with smoke canisters.

The recent violent clashes are the latest act in a tense drama that has been mounting since the disputed national election last summer, when Hun Sen’s ruling party claimed victory among widespread accusations of voter fraud. The cynicism and complacency that characterized past national elections gave way to a new era of public engagement, partly fueled by social media spreading news outside state-controlled TV and radio broadcasts. The newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party, which united two leading opposition parties — the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party — promised a set of concrete economic reforms, including raising garment workers’ minimum wage, raising civil servants’ monthly salaries to $250, offering better loans for students, lowering the microcredit interest rate, and expanding health care. It pledged to find extra money in the budget by trimming government waste and corruption, in a country ranked 160 out of 177 on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Ultimately, the opposition — whose diverse backers include workers’ unions, Buddhist monks, and youth leaders — stands for prying wealth from the hands of a corrupt elite and sharing the spoils of Cambodia’s recent economic boom with a broader swath of society. While Cambodia’s GDP has tripled in a decade, largely fueled by rapid growth in the garment-manufacturing sector, the country’s Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — has risen at a worryingly quick rate.

"The government strategy is not to give more — the government strategy is just to intimidate," says Ee Sarom, executive director of Palm Tree Leaf, a nonprofit that works on urban poverty in Phnom Penh. "Last summer, people thought they could change the government and change the country. The government only wants to scare people so they don’t mobilize now. It looks like Burma before the military junta fell." As former Buddhist monk turned opposition activist Setha Ly told me, "Cambodians need real democracy, not fake democracy." But many more may have to die before they get it.

*Correction, Jan. 28, 2014: This article originally misstated the year in which Hun Sen became Cambodia’s prime minister. He has ruled the country since 1985, not 1998. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, April 2, 2014: This is a test correction. (Return to reading.)

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola