Revisiting the Crackdown in Cambodia

January 9, 2015

Striking Cambodian workers: unity and solidarity. Photo  taken from <b>Liana Dalton's Facebook account</b>

Striking Cambodian workers: unity and solidarity. Photo taken from Liana Dalton’s Facebook account

I should have written this a year ago, right after joining a fact-finding mission on the violent crackdown on the Cambodian workers’ strike from December 2013 to January 2014. Nearly a year after, however, my notes remained raw, and my draft a series of sentence fragments and disparate paragraphs. If only to console myself, I must say, I really tried hard, even bothered a friend or two to push myself to finish this essay, but it was futile. I am not very good at weaving words after all. With no clear message in mind, I got stuck. And in my hopeless attempt to move on this “new” year, I am coming out with these notes instead.

As soon as I reached Phnom Penh, I felt the need to find a way to describe it, how it looks and how distinctly beautiful it is. Perhaps how I viewed Phnom Penh then was largely mediated by my very limited knowledge, and possibly grotesque image, of the place—the history of genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime, severe underdevelopment, three decades of authoritarian rule by Hun Sen, and of course, the Angkor Wat.

Unlike in Manila where tall buildings dim our view of the sky and where everyday streets have become more and more gentrified, there are no skyscrapers and posh malls in Phnom Penh. The light coming from the sun freely refracts to the colorful rooftops and beautiful landscape. Not a few artists would consider this scene cinematic and sublime. It is charming. But I can’t help take the seemingly dilating sun with more caution and worry—as though its distinct beauty forebodes cruel narratives that would unfold in the days to come.

The crackdown on the striking workers on January 2 and 3, 2014 in Yakjin factory and Veng Sreng Road left at least five people dead, 23 detained for as long as six months, and scores marred with injuries and traumas which they have to carry for the rest of their lives.

It is an ignominy to humanity that stories of injustice and brazen violence proliferate in the world today, inside and outside of Phnom Penh. News reports never run short of what Walter Benjamin describes as the “state of emergency.” Indeed, it is “not the exception, but the rule.” The Philippines also bears witness to this violence against workers, with over 100 trade unionists killed only in the last decade. A similar incident of indiscriminate firing at striking workers, who were also demanding a pay hike, in a vast sugar mill owned by the president’s family happened 10 years ago, killing at least seven sugar workers. Low-paid Bangladeshi workers were trapped and killed in a factory fire two or three years ago. The list can actually go on infinitely.

Cambodian garment workers were merely demanding a decent wage. Between US$ 156 to US$ 170 is needed to live decently according to government’s computation so the labor unions agreed to demand US$ 160. Before the strike, garment workers were paid a dismal US$ 80. Workers thus have to work long hours a day in order to subsist. The result was mass fainting among workers in the garment factories. After weeks of a national strike, the government slightly raised the minimum wage to US$ 100. After the crackdown, protests by local unions continued. On September 2014, the labor federations launched a campaign to increase the minimum wage to US$ 177 and pressure from the international community heightened. All these forced the Cambodian government to increase the minimum wage further to US$ 128 on November 28. It is horrifying to think that such a meager wage hike cost the Cambodian people five young lives on top of freedoms and futures of many other workers and activists. Meanwhile, international retail brands that benefit the most in the supply chain of Cambodia’s garment industry amass annual profits higher than the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Capitalism has indeed produced totalitarian societies that control and desensitize us. Statistics of increasing inequality, death tolls in war and war-like zones have almost become an everyday affair that we readily accept as matter-of-fact, an inseparable part of the intractable reality of our despondent lives, and no longer as something that must and can be changed. After delving into the particularities of each victim’s experience and the collective struggle of Cambodian workers, however, one becomes inspired and enraged at the same time. Perhaps feeling those emotions are good; it indicates that, no matter how faint, that we can still feel, that there is hope to retrieve humanity from the indifference of individuals and dangerous apathy of numbers.

Each demise diminishes us, as one writer puts it. And for families who lost loved ones, the impact is more palpable. The promise of a better future is gone, dreams are left behind, and children orphaned. A difficult yet wonderful love is only a memory to remember: The wife of a worker killed in Veng Sreng described her husband to be a “very gentle man”, respectful towards elders, friendly, hardworking and helpful even in house work. She recalled: “Since we got married, we have been struggling together. Sometimes we don’t have enough food to eat but we are still kind, we are still nice to each other. We live with whatever is available. We don’t complain.”

Perhaps underneath the patience with low wages and their life lies a desire for an improvement, however slight. One of the injured workers confessed that to him US$ 160 is not really a decent wage but is somehow better than US$ 85. That is why workers and even non-garment workers who were subjected to (many were injured) the crackdown unanimously supported the workers’ demand. They believed that the ultimate way to achieve their demand was through a strike. Despite being severely injured, some of them vowed to continue supporting the demand, and possibly join another strike, because “there is no other option.”

In the course of the taking notes and writing a report, it was striking for me to re-witness the shock of victims and their families and their realization of the absurdity of the violence employed against them because they asked for a very simple thing: an increase in the minimum wage. One injured worker said, “We just want a better wage and just to demand this, we [have become so] scared. It is my first experience and I am so afraid. This has never happened.” Another worker’s parent killed in the crackdown said, “The salary is too low, [the workers] could not survive with that amount. That is why they decided to join the strike. So the demand is just for a decent life. It’s not about buying a brand new car…(or about having) food for the holidays–all those lazy activities. It’s just for the family.”

It surprised and worried me a lot that when I was gathering the notes and going through the recordings, none of the workers and even unionists mentioned the terms “capital,” “profit,” or “class” in the interviews. A member of the team explained to me that many of them have still not transcended the neoliberal development framework which was pushed by the United Nations for Cambodia after the fall of the dreaded Pol Pot regime. Their experience with that hated regime gave a bad name to Marxism (although Pol Pot’s ideas and policies were, in fact, anti-Marxist) and its formulations and concepts.

It perplexed me at first, then, that I saw a copy of Volume 3 of Das Kapital, the rarest and most important work of Marx, in one of the workers’ centers. I realized, though, that such sighting signaled hope for the future of the Cambodian workers’ and people’s movement. The same team member confirmed what I saw. To my questions he replied: “Yes, you’re right, you saw Capital Volume 3…Keeping that is an exceptional move by someone who is ready to question anything that’s taken for granted in Cambodia…And perhaps we will see more people radically rethinking Marx and using some of the best parts of his critique of capitalist development in social movements in the near future. They are beautiful indeed.”