The Factory Shooting Farce & Why Cambodia Needs An Aung San Suu KyiMarch 19, 2012
I read an interesting interview at the weekend with a Khmer academic living in America who warns that Cambodia desperately needs an Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela figure to protect the rights of its down-trodden people.
The country is not just being let down by what he calls “Class Z” leaders who rule the Kingdom largely unopposed, but also by the weakness of its opposition figures, says Naranhkiri Tith, a former professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who fled to the US in the 1960s.
“Where on Earth can a country like that survive?” he told Voice Of America Khmer. “Cambodians need the quality of Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who have great moral strength” to fight for freedom, human rights, and protect the land and its people, he added.
Critics say many of the problems in the country are the result of a failed court system and a government where the power is concentrated into the hands of one person rather than the state.
There are few better examples than the continued foot-dragging over the arrest of former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith – a scandal that has become a major embarrassment for Cambodia.
The latest news is that he turned up in court last week with his lawyer and admitted shooting three young women protesters outside Kaoway Sports Ltd shoe factory in Bavet last month, but he still remains a free man, despite growing international pressure for justice.
The trio – Buot Chinda, 21, Keo Neth, 18, and Nuth Sakhorn, 23 – were among some 6,000 protesters demanding higher wages and better working conditions at factories in eastern Svay Rieng province when Chhouk Bandith allegedly fired into the crowd. It was apparently in anger after a stone was thrown and hit him on the head.
A farce that was unbelievable even by Cambodian standards then followed. Bavet town officials reportedly offered the injured workers gifts of between $500 and $1,000 not to press charges, and when this failed, it sparked a whole load of buck-passing between court and government to explain why he still hasn’t been arrested.
Even when some of the world’s biggest brands, including Puma, H&M, and Gap, wrote a letter voicing their “deep concern” and urging a “full and transparent investigation” into the bloodshed, it fell on deaf ears.
The inaction is amazing when you consider the garment and textile industry is the backbone of the Cambodian economy, employing more than 300,000 people, and exporting $4.24bn of goods last year, around 85% of total exports, according to newly-released figures from the Ministry of Commerce.
The US and EU are the major destinations for these goods – with exports to America growing by 11% to $2.05bn last year, and exports to Europe soaring by 42% to $1.3bn. And as both trade areas are pickier than most when it comes to human rights abuses and corruption, it’s incredible to think jobs and economic growth are being put at risk to protect one man.
Puma, which buys shoes from the factory, is clearly so frustrated it has launched its own investigation into the incident, saying its primary concern is the safety of workers.
And a group of 32 rights groups and unions issued a statement on Thursday calling on the government to ensure Chhouk Bandith’s arrest become a top priority.
“Many Cambodian garment workers already live a life of hardship, suffering, poverty and uncertainty. As such, the workers should receive protection and support from the State, not face further victimisation through brutal acts of violence,” they said.
It suggests the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon, and if anything pressure will be ratcheted up on ministers to actually do something. Chhouk Bandith was removed from his post, but this clearly falls way short of what foreign investors expect from the government, with rights groups saying he should be charged with attempted murder because he allegedly shot directly into a crowd with presumably little thought for injury or loss of life.
Cambodia needs to tackle its culture of impunity if it is to rely on foreign investment. It receives a huge amount of international aid and NGO help. And the signal this sends out that a gunman can escape arrest for shooting at protesters asking for little more than their basic human needs is appalling. It may make foreign states wonder if the cash being invested in the country’s democratic process is doing any good.
Whatever he knows, or whoever he knows, the former governor should face trial if the country’s legal system is not to become more of a laughing stock than it already is.
If the sham continues, it will be interesting to see whether retail giants register their disgust by taking business elsewhere. The garment sector is a tough, highly competitive industry, and it’s not just quality and cheap labour costs that attract orders.
The damage to a world-famous brand associated with a country which fails to deliver more than a slap on the wrist to powerful Cambodians who order, or personally carry out, the shooting of peaceful protesters can be far greater than saving thousands of dollars a month on wages. I wonder what Aung San Suu Kyi would say on the matter.
Alex’s new book, ‘Down and Out in Padstow’ and London’ is now available in paperback via Amazon