* Protests, strikes test PM Hun Sen
* Rights group condemns "extreme lethal force"
* Factory workers allied with political opposition
* Workers say they cannot survive on salaries
By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH, Jan 3 Cambodian military police
opened fire with assault rifles on Friday to quell a protest by
garment factory workers demanding higher pay, and human rights
workers said at least four people were killed.
Chaos during nationwide strikes erupted for a second day as
security forces were deployed to halt a demonstration by
thousands of workers who refused to move and threw bottles,
stones and petrol bombs at an industrial zone in Phnom Penh.
The clash represents an escalation of a political crisis in
Cambodia, where striking workers and anti-government protesters
have come together in a loose movement led by the opposition
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Unions representing garment workers have joined opposition
supporters protesting against the government of Prime Minister
Hun Sen to demand a re-run of an election in July that the
opposition has said was rigged.
Military police confronting the protesters fired live
ammunition, Reuters journalists said, and bullet casings were
later seen scattered on the ground at the scene.
The clashes took place at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom
Penh, home to dozens of factories that make clothing for western
brands including Adidas, Puma and H&M
Hennes & Mauritz.
Human rights group LICADHO described the incident as
"horrific" and said its own investigation and surveys of
hospitals had found four people were killed and 21 were
"We condemn this appalling use of extreme lethal force by
security forces", the group's director, Naly Pilorge, said in a
statement. "Security forces must now put an immediate end to the
use of live ammunition against civilians."
Spokesmen for the national police and military police said
they could not verify the number of casualties.
The violence followed a crackdown on Thursday outside a
Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc factory in another part of the city, when
armed troops struck demonstrators with batons, wounding 20
people. Yakjin is a maker of clothing for U.S. companies Gap
Many Western brands outsource manufacturing of footwear and
apparel to Cambodia, partly because labour there is cheaper than
The CNRP, led by former finance minister Sam Rainsy, has
courted some 350,000 garment workers from nearly 500 factories
across the country by promising to nearly double the monthly
minimum wage to $160 if it wins a re-run of the July election,
which Hun Sen is refusing to hold.
CRISIS OVER WAGES
The opposition claims that 2.3 million of its votes were
stolen to allow the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) to
return to office. The CPP won 68 seats in the election to the
CNRP's 55, according to the National Election Committee, but the
CNRP has said the commission is one of many agencies under the
influence of the CPP.
The government is refusing to raise the wage beyond $100
dollars a month and has ordered factories to reopen. The garment
industry is worth $5 billion a year to Cambodia, one of the
world's poorest countries.
Cheath Khemera, a senior labour officer at the Garment
Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), told Reuters it
was too soon to assess the cost of the strikes, but he estimated
each factory could be losing $20,000 to $30,000 a day.
"This really impacts the industry seriously," he said.
The United States said it deeply regretted the loss of life
in the clashes and urged all sides to exercise restraint and
show respect for the rule of law.
"We condemn violence as a means to achieve political or
other objectives," State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said
at a regular briefing.
"We have urged workers, unions and the government to work
together towards a peaceful resolution of labour disagreements,"
she said, adding that the United States was also engaging
garment exporters and buyers on the issue.
"We are urging respect for workers rights and safe working
conditions in general," she said.
Until this week, security forces had exercised restraint as
pressure mounted on a government facing some of the biggest
protests ever seen in Cambodia.
The strikes and protests represent a rare challenge to the
28-year rule of Hun Sen, who has been credited with attracting
investment and creating jobs in the once failed state scarred by
war and the bloody 1970s Khmer Rouge era.
He has also earned a reputation for being intolerant of
opposition and rights groups have said abuses are common.
Hun Sen's rule was tested last year when various opposition
parties amalgamated and won votes from Cambodians upset by low
wages, graft and a substantial number of forced evictions from
farmland and city slums.
Garment manufacturing is Cambodia's biggest foreign currency
earner. It is also a major employer and vital source of income
for many rural families who complain they can barely survive on
the wages, which are lower than in neighbouring Thailand and