PHNOM PENH — At least four people were killed and 23 injured Friday in a violent crackdown on demonstrating workers in a factory neighborhood of Phnom Penh.
Thousands of workers have been demonstrating since Sunday, demanding higher wages to keep up with the cost of living in Cambodia.
Witnesses said hundreds of police were deployed to deal with the demonstrators, and some fired live bullets into crowds of demonstrating workers, who threw stones at police in the Canadia Industrial Zone.
Some protesters were beaten, or prodded with electric batons, in the second day of violent clashes between security forces and protesters.
Roth Sreang, chief of National Police, said the shootings were justified, after police were attacked by demonstrators.
“Who started the violence first?” he said. “The authorities had no intention to harm them, but they did. That’s why we were forced to use guns.”
At least 10 people were arrested during the clashes.
“The authorities beat us and opened fire on us, as though we were animals,” said protester Suon Savath, who was prodded with an electrified baton during the clashes.
“I saw police shooting at demonstrators and using real bullets,” Ek Kim Eng, a street vendor working nearby, said. “I collected some of the bullets in my pocket.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, said four people were killed, with another seriously wounded, while 23 others were injured.
Demonstrators also attacked a local clinic after it refused to treat the injured.
Chan Soveth, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the use of live ammunition was unwarranted. He said he had witnessed five police officers shooting at protesters with AK-47s. One person was killed immediately, and three were wounded in the legs in that incident, he said.
“We don’t think that the road blockage is so serious to the point the authorities should resort to the use of such heavy force,” he said. “I think it would have been much better if they just talked to the protesters.”
A US Embassy spokesman said US officials were in touch with representatives from all sides to urge “maximum restraint and respect for the rule of law.”
Union leaders said they would not call off the demonstrations, in which workers are calling for a minimum wage increase up to $160 per month.
“We will keep on protesting in front of factories, but we appeal to all our members to exercise utmost restraint and avoid violence, even if police beat them,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. “So we won’t face the same fate like today.”
Friday’s violence comes as the opposition and ruling party planned talks to break a monthslong political deadlock.
But Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said Friday there would be no talks in such a tense environment.
“There is no justification to use force on workers who simply used words,” he said Friday. “We strongly condemn the authorities for using weapons to crackdown on unarmed civilians.”
Sam Rainsy called the demonstrations “peaceful” and said workers would not give up on their salary demands. Nor will opposition supporters stop demonstrations for “full rights and freedoms,” he said.
Opposition protesters plan to continue citywide protests this weekend, setting the stage for larger demonstrations and potentially more clashes.
Political negotiations will have to wait, he said. “We will wait for the situation to become normal and quiet.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had opened the door for talks and that Friday’s crackdown on protesters was legal and justified.