Installed by the Vietnamese almost three decades ago, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People Party have ruled the nation with an iron first ever since. However, as a result of irregularities in the July 2013 election, the CPP’s grip appears to be slipping. Not only did the Cambodian National Rescue Party, led by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, pick up numerous seats in the National Assembly, they exposed the prime minister’s vulnerability to Cambodian “people power” in the process. In December 2013, Hun Sen faced his greatest political challenge as Phnom Penh streets filled with tens of thousands of protestors. The farmers, factory workers, moto taxi drivers and students were all airing their grievances with newfound confidence and a cathartic sense of bitterness. Not only were they calling for new elections, they were calling for Hun Sen’s resignation.
I was amazed that Hun Sen had not unleashed their goon squads of bodyguards, military police, special forces and plainclothes “mobs” as he had done so many times in the past. He event allowed the opposition to establish a beachhead in Phnom Penh. Freedom Park, the opposition’s symbolic base of operations located on the grassy strip between Monivong and Norodom Boulevard, quickly grew into a small village built of tarps and scaffolding. It provided a symbolic rallying point where the opposition gathered, held rallies, and fanned the flames of this long overdue expression of popular discontent.
The protests gained real momentum when the Cambodia’s half million garment factory workers sided with Rainsy’s CNRP. This mostly female workforce earns for less than subsistence wages in the Korean, Japanese and Chinese-owned sweatshops that make clothes for the GAP, Puma, H & S, Victoria’s Secret and many other Western name brands. Although the garment industry accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia’s exports, most of the workers earn less than $80 per month and live in cramped shared apartments or dormitories.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On January 2, 2014, opposition demonstrators marched on the Phnom Penh garment factories and battled police with rocks and fists. By the time I arrived the next day, protestors and military police were fighting again near the Canadia Industrial Park. The protestors threw rocks and crude Molotov cocktails; when the government forces charged, they dispersed into nearby markets and apartments. Protestors, or mobs using the protest as cover, began to loot Vietnamese businesses and even broke into a medical clinic where they destroyed x-ray machines and stoked a bonfire with medical supplies. Government forces got tired of deflecting rocks with their plexiglass shields and opened fire on the crowd. By day’s end, 5 were dead, 40 injured, and another two dozen held in police detention.
After that Friday’s violence, the opposition called for their largest demonstration at Freedom Park on Sunday. Saturday morning I was finishing breakfast a few blocks from Freedom Park when my eye was caught by what looked like two Blackhawk helicopters flying low enough overhead so I could see their enclosed tail rotors. The Cambodian military had just taken delivery of the Z-9 helicopters from China (who also lent them the $118 million to buy them. At Freedom Park, government forces, some in military police uniforms, others in black, state of the art, Robocop suits, complete with hard plastic armor on their shoulders, chest, shins, forearms and fists, sealed off the perimeter and were keeping out all press. Men in plain clothes with red arm bands had already descended on the opposition’s encampment with bats and pipes, you could hear the clanging of metal on metal as they clear-cut the opposition’s base of operations.
A rumor began to circulate that Sam Rainsy had sought asylum inside the nearby U.S. embassy. By the time I got to the massive American compound several opposition leaders were giving a press conference on the benches in front of the entrance. One young member of parliament was typing into multiple handheld devices while talking to a reporter on the phone. They seemed relieved by the presence of Western reporters as Cambodian soldiers drove by slowly and made eye contact. Several men identified themselves as Cambodian Americans who had returned home to support the opposition, one retiree from Long Beach, said that he was not leaving until “that Vietnamese son of a bitch steps down.”
Because Hun Sen had defected from the Khmer Rouge to Vietnam in 1978, and returned with the invading and occupying forces, many Cambodians, including Rainsy, have called Hun Sen a “puppet of yuon.” Some claim that the word is a racist insult, while others claim it is a literal translation of the word “Vietnamese” into Khmer. Nonetheless, the word “yuon,” was popping up with increasing regularity. Early Saturday night, young Cambodian men were screaming “youn” at the soldiers posted on nearly every corner as they sped by on motorcycles. One Cambodian said that during the day the soldiers where Khmer, but at night, they brought out the “yuon” soldiers.
By Monday things had returned to normal in time for what once been called the “Day of Hate,” the 35th anniversary of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. As a security precaution, the ceremony was held across the Tonle River at Koh Pich in front of what the government claimed were 35,000 supporters. The massive, carefully choreographed anniversary gala was part Vegas floor show and part old school communist rally. Aging Cambodian leader Chea Sim and Heng Samrin, the first Cambodian prime minster installed by the Vietnamese after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, made their way down a red carpet as long as a football pitch, and took their places on a massive stage. Once in place, Prime Minister Hun Sen worked the crowd on his way to the podium, all three sat beneath a neo-socialist realist painting of the three men’s profiles.
After the event was consecrated by Buddhist monks, Heng Samrin delivered the first official government statement on the events of Friday and Saturday. Samrin praised the CPP for making “correct and realistic forward steps” and denounced “certain political forces and ill-willed circles [who] have made constant attempts to deceive history from white to black or to vice versa to inflict adverse attack on the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party for the country to cause political and socio-economic instability.” Despite the wooden prose, Samrin was correct about one thing: the politicization of the garment workers had already caused economic instability. Even the normally supportive Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted sources proposing a Cambodian referendum to let the public decide on whether there should be new elections. To Cambodia’s debt-burdened Chinese patrons, economic instability is a far greater sin than human rights violations.
Although the Cambodian government moved quickly to raise the minimum wage, it has done little to appease garment workers or the opposition. Cambodian filmmaker and historian Rity Panh pointed out the sad irony of the situation to me: If Cambodian garment workers received a living wage, the factory bosses would simply pack up their factories and move them to Burma or another poor country with cheap, docile labor and a government willing to ensure it – the bitter fruit of globalization.
Irrespective of economic realities, the Cambodian genie is out of the bottle. Generations of Cambodians who have watched Hun Sen and his cronies act with impunity for decades smell fear and uncertainty and are intoxicated by their new-found power. If this is truly an eruption of people power, will the military eventually side with their countrymen? While early January’s protests were easily squashed, this is a long interval political swell and the next set is coming.
Peter Maguire is the author of Facing Death in Cambodia, Law and War and Thai Stick. He has taught the law and theory of war at Columbia University, Bard College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.