PHNOM PENH —
At least 15 monks and five other people were injured in a violent crackdown on striking workers Thursday, after a special military unit was called in to deal with demonstrators outside a Phnom Penh factory.
The clash, between demonstrators and troops from Special Command Unit 911, took place after protesters began throwing rocks at soldiers, officials said.
The soldiers were seen carrying metal pipes, knives, AK-47 rifles, slingshots and batons, according to rights workers. The clash took place outside the Yak Jin factory, which is thought to produce for international brands GAP, Walmart and Old Navy.
The violence comes amid continued protests by workers over the minimum wage. But it also comes after ongoing anti-government demonstrations over the last two weeks and ahead of negotiations between leaders of the ruling and opposition parties to end the demonstration and political impasse.
At least 10 people, including four monks, were subsequently arrested. Rights groups said the deployment of Unit 911 was unprecedented “and signals a disturbing new tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests.”
Among the injured was Von Pov, head of the a union that represents the informal economy, who was beaten unconscious.
Nuth Rumduol, a lawmaker-elect for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, who was also injured in the violence, said Unit 911 soldiers were “aggressive” in their handling of the demonstrations.
One young man, “a simple bystander,” was taken by soldiers and beaten with sticks, Nuth Rumduol said. “He was not armed and did not throw any stones,” he said. “This happened right before my eyes.”
Chap Sophoan, commander of Unit 911, said he ordered the crackdown.
“Do we have to stand idle and get attacked, or what?” he told VOA Khmer. “My soldiers obediently followed my orders. Who is responsible, when we say, ‘Don’t throw stones at us,’ but they still do?”
Rights workers say the crackdown was excessive and unwarranted.
The group Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and arrests of demonstrators.
“We are gravely concerned for the safety of those still held, especially in light of recent threats to leaders of unions and informal associations,” Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said in a statement. “Some of those held are believed to have been severely beaten as they were arrested. Monks and workers from nearby factories were also beaten by military police during the earlier clashes.”
Both groups called on authorities to ensure the safety of those in detention, provide medical attention to those who are injured, and to release anyone not charged with a clear criminal offense.
“We urge all those currently involved in protests and labor disputes and the authorities to abide by the law, exercise restraint and remain peaceful,” Moeun Told, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said. “There must be an end to violence, arrest and discrimination of those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”