South Korea in a Pickle over Cambodian Crackdown

Did Seoul contribute to the bloody crackdown on garment workers?

Luke Hunt
South Korea in a Pickle over Cambodian Crackdown
Credit: Twitter @huddyhoodz

Conflicts and crackdowns are great drivers of any rumor mill and Cambodia proved no different over the past two weeks when its government shifted into overdrive and sent in the military and police to quell dissent and end long-running protests that followed last July’s election.

Among those targeted were unions and striking garment workers – five dead, 20 injured, 23 detained and several missing. But soon after the Military Police opened fire with automatic weapons, rumors had spread around Phnom Penh that the South Korean government had encouraged the attacks.

The South Korean embassy went into damage control, doing its level best to play down its part in the bloody violence – and it worked, a bit.

With so much to report there was little time to check, and after all the story did smack of union or opposition tale telling. Ultimately, it was quietly dropped by many in the media. Then the ABC in Australia obtained credible information showing that South Korean embassy officials had direct contact with the authorities who conducted the attack and had urged them to act.

According to ABC the South Korean embassy in Cambodia had posted a notice on its Facebook page last week detailing pleas to both Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition leader Sam Rainsy and how embassy staff had actively engaged Cambodian police and military to protect South Korean assets.

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The statement was quickly removed but not before the ABC acquired a translation which said in part “… they sent armies only for our companies in Canadia  Industrial Park, protecting against fires and plunder.”

“We’ve prepared concrete actions with the co-operation of the police and the army for protection of our labourers,” the ABC quoted the statement as saying. “With our companies, we’ve visited the army office of city protection and explained the real situation.”

South Korea investors own a majority of Cambodia’s 500 garment factories that employ about 600,000 people, earning $5 billion a year in exports from big brands like Levi Strauss and Puma. The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) says losses from recent industrial action had cost its members more than $200 million.

Global Post also picked up on the story, offering in depth coverage and obtaining a response from Seoul in which it tried hard to justify its decision and even added: “The embassies of other countries in Cambodia, such as China and Japan whose companies are operating in the country as well, are said to have made similar requests to the Cambodian government.”

There is a great sense of irony at play and not just because these are three countries which don’t particularly like each other but are finding common ground in the quest for profit. More importantly, Hun Sen and those loyal to him have persistently carped about foreign interference in his country.

What they are actually alluding to was the pressure exerted by the United States on Phnom Penh to allow Sam Rainsy to return from exile to contest the July elections in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was returned but with a substantially reduced majority.

At the end of the day, the Americans were simply backing Cambodian democracy. The South Koreans and perhaps the Chinese and Japanese were, however, safeguarding profits against striking workers demanding more than $80 a month as a minimum wage.

At Canadia, workers – who were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails – and innocent bystanders were shot and in some cases killed as a result. The response was heavy handed and sent a terrible message to those who do not agree with the government or their friends like the garment manufacturers.

If the South Koreans are serious then Seoul, along with the governments and other companies involved, should now think about compensation payments to the injured and killed. GMAC would probably be in the best position to facilitate payments.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.