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Authorities Block Observers as Svay Rieng Factory Protests Continue

Protesters at the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Bavet city threw stones at police. (Photo: VOA Khmer/Neou Vannarin)
Protesters at the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Bavet city threw stones at police. (Photo: VOA Khmer/Neou Vannarin)

Observers and trade union representatives said they were blocked from monitoring protests in Svay Rieng province, where striking workers clashed with security forces once again on Tuesday morning.

Protesters at the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Bavet city reportedly threw stones at police, after fire trucks were deployed to quell the workers’ demonstration.

Factory zones in the town on Cambodia’s border with Vietnam have seen protests since Wednesday last week, when it was announced that the national minimum wage would be raised from $128 to $140 per month, below the demands of workers’ representatives.

On Monday, riot police dispersed a crowd with water canon while protesters threw stones at police. Forty-eight workers were briefly detained for questioning.

Representative for Collective Movement of Union Workers (CMUW) Chea Udom said he was able to see from a distance of police officers wielding batons against workers on Tuesday morning.

It is not clear whether any workers were seriously hurt, but authorities claimed two police officers were hit by stones and two fire trucks were damaged.

“According to the information I got from the workers, they said they were on their way home, but authorities stopped them from leaving Manhattan SEZ,” Udom said.

As more workers joined the crowd, some began shouting at security forces, he said. Events escalated when police deployed fire trucks and people started throwing stones in expectation that water cannon would be used on the crowd, according to the workers’ account.

Chheng Sophors, a senior monitor for local human rights group LICADHO, told VOA Khmer that he was with a group of observers and medics that was stopped at the gate of the SEZ.

“I think this is a restriction on our rights because we didn’t know what was happening inside,” Sophors said, adding that workers who may have been injured in clashes with the security forces were also denied medical care due to the restrictions.

Svay Rieng provincial government cabinet chief and spokesman, Ros Pharith, denied that authorities had hindered the movement of observers and medics.

“That is not true,” he said. “I don’t know if there is any order for banning because it was chaotic and no one was prohibited [from moving].”

“Our authorities were very patient and nice to the workers,” he added.

However, Khun Sokhom, provincial coordinator for the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said it was common for local authorities to block him and other trade union representatives from monitoring protests.

“Actually, during the protests in the last few days, authorities did not allow unions to access the protesting area,” he said. “I am not sure about it, maybe authorities are scared of trade unions, or they thought trade unions would create trouble for them.”

The exchange of stones between protesters and Svay Rieng provincial armed forces ended sometime around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, following a call from the authorities for negotiations with demonstrators.

Pharith, the provincial government spokesman, said two different meetings were set up on Tuesday afternoon to settle the issues. He added the factory owners had suggested a two-day holiday for workers to ease tensions in Bavet.

Garment manufacturing is the one of the main industries in Cambodia's economy. It provides jobs for at least 700,000 Cambodians, but workers say the minimum wage is not sufficient for their day-to-day needs.