Phnom Penh (AFP) – A woman was shot dead and several people injured as Cambodian riot police used live rounds, rubber bullets and teargas in clashes with protesting garment workers Tuesday, rights groups said, condemning the violence.
Unrest erupted as hundreds of employees from a factory supplying global clothing brands marched towards Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home in the heart of Phnom Penh to demand better working conditions.
In one of the most bloody crackdowns on a string of protests in the capital in recent months, a woman selling rice at a nearby stall suffered a fatal gunshot wound, activists said.
Several others were believed to have been hurt by bullets or police beatings, with one in a serious condition.
“Today’s violence and the death of an innocent bystander is another example of police brutality. Exercising one’s right to peacefully gather and voice one’s needs for a better livelihood shouldn’t be a deadly event,” said Naly Pilorge, of local rights groups Licadho in a statement.
Authorities confirmed one person had been killed, but declined to comment on whether security forces had fired live rounds.
“Police will investigate whether the woman died from a real bullet or anything else,” military police spokesman Kheng Tito told AFP.
He had earlier said that security forces had used water cannon as demonstrators threw rocks and set a police vehicle alight in the unrest — the latest in a series of outbreaks of worker unrest at factories producing goods for western firms.
The dead woman was named as 49-year-old Eng Sokhom by family members.
“My mother was shot in the chest while she was selling rice on the roadside,” said her daughter Vong Voleak.
The victim’s niece said authorities had come to “threaten” the family.
“They said, ‘Maybe your mother also joined the protest. That’s why she was shot’,” she said, adding “who will take responsibility for this?”
An AFP reporter at the scene said local people had found what appeared to be a bullet casing near the street stall.
Unions said violence broke out as police tried to stop over a thousand workers from the Singapore-owned SL Garment Processing factory — which supplies brands like Gap and H&M — as they made their way through the capital.
“We went to the prime minister to seek his intervention to improve the working conditions at the factory. But authorities used weapons to crack down on them,” said Kong Athit, deputy leader of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union which organised the march.
Hundreds of riot police, many armed with batons and shields, were on the capital’s streets, which were littered with rocks and tear gas canisters after the protesters were dispersed.
An AFP reporter saw more than a dozen people — including several monks — rounded up by police. Officers beat a number of protesters in their custody and left several bleeding.
The situation appeared to have calmed down by Tuesday afternoon.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it “strongly condemns the violent turn of events” and urged the government to investigate the shooting — the second death of a civilian in the Cambodian capital in two months.
Opposition rallies against Hun Sen’s ruling party turned violent in September, leaving one protester dead.
SL workers have been demonstrating periodically for weeks in a dispute with employers that includes claims of intimidation over the use of military police in factory inspections.
Cambodia’s multibillion-dollar garment industry, which employs about 650,000 people, is a key source of foreign income for the impoverished country.
Disputes over pay and working conditions are common in the sector, where workers can earn around $110 a month with overtime.
In July the International Labour Organisation accused Cambodia of backsliding in efforts to improve working conditions in the sector.
The kingdom was failing to make progress in areas such as worker and fire safety and the use of child labour, it said in a report.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said protests may imperil the country’s garment industry by persuading firms to relocate to Myanmar, Laos and India where labour is cheaper.