Rocks were hurled, fires lit, hostages taken and the message delivered in no uncertain terms last week: Cambodians are increasingly willing to use violence against companies that intimidate them or ignore their demands.
Twice – in Svay Rieng and Kampong Cham provinces – garment workers pelted factories with rocks, shattering windows and ultimately bringing companies to the negotiating table.
In Ratankkiri, ethnic Tumpoun villagers took matters further, abducting four security guards and another employee working for a rubber company, holding them hostage and parading them for the cameras until Jing Zhong Ri Cambodia Co Ltd agreed to halt – at least temporarily – the bulldozing of their land.
The dangerous lesson these people seem to be learning is simple: if the courts and the authorities will not help them, they can get results through force.
Chhay Chan Noeun, a worker from the Medtec factory in Kampong Cham, said none of the roughly 2,000 garment workers who protested last week wanted to resort to violence, but after four days of inaction from the company or authorities, they saw no alternative.
“When there was violence, authorities and the factory owner seemed to find a solution for us. We will meet on Monday [today],” she said.
“Workers don’t like violence, but workers don’t like employers to oppress us.”
Ninety minutes after the unrest began on Thursday, Medtec, which had refused to implement an Arbitration Council ruling ordering it to improve working conditions, suddenly began listening.
Tuy Nheb, a representative of the Tumpoun ethnic villagers in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district, said his community considered retaliation only when bulldozers, rather than negotiators, arrived on their doorstep.
“Our anger broke out when they did not listen,” Tuy Nheb said.
“It is because we have no choice except taking them hostage to ask for a solution over this land dispute.”
These are the frustrations of people who feel they have no avenue of recourse in a system where the perception of provincial and district-level government collusion with private companies is widespread.
And the feeling of helplessness has only been reinforced by repeated instances of unarmed protestors being shot by security guards or unidentified perpetrators, most recently outside the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory in Svay Rieng last Monday.
Kaoway conceded to its workers demands for a $10 monthly transport allowance and daily 50 cent food stipend but three workers were shot including one who was left in critical condition with a bullet wound through her chest.
Five days after Minister of Interior Sar Kheng announced the perpetrator of the Kaoway shootings had been identified, police had still failed to arrest a suspect yesterday.
Pen Bunnar, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the public’s trust in judicial and government impartiality when mediating land disputes had completely collapsed.
“This is a lesson to inform other companies and authorities to discuss the impact with villagers before giving land concessions,” he said, stressing that violence was not the answer either.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Quick and Press Reaction Unit who has an academic background in conflict resolution, said the use of independent arbitrators was the best way to avoid such outbreaks of violence, before taking cases to court.
“When the farmers, villagers, workers are getting more educated, they understand more about the environment. The competent authorities including the court officials and the parties concerned have to find a peaceful solution to handle any situation that occurs,” he said.
“We have to respect each other. We share the same blood. We are living in the same country. If either of the two parties do something wrong this is a bad image for Cambodia.”
With United Nations members set to vote on Cambodia’s bid for a Security Council seat in October and the country attempting to put its best foot forward as this year’s chair of ASEAN, the government is particularly sensitive about unrest that tarnishes its image abroad.
But of more direct and immediate consequence is the impact such widely publicised outbursts of violence can have on foreign direct investment.
After the shooting last week at Kaoway, which supplies sportswear giant PUMA, Sar Kheng issued a harsh rebuke of police who have been involved in shootings of unarmed villagers, a statement that caught many observers by surprise.
Mathieu Pellerin, a monitoring consultant with rights group Licadho, stressed that actions speak louder than words and said the government had more to worry about than just its foreign image.
“I think its something the state should be extremely worried about, when you push a growing fraction of your population towards hopelessness, its not good for stability, which is a key selling point of the ruling party – stability.”