Those who had hoped that Prime Minister Hun Sen's surprise near-loss in the flawed elections last July would lead to a more accommodating stance have been sadly disappointed. The man who has dominated Cambodia and her people for almost three decades still holds an iron grip. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)’s mandate to conduct “free and fair general elections” in 1993 has proved largely irrelevant over time to the politics on the ground. Cambodian human rights bloggers have even recently raised the specter of a sinister “Third Hand” formed to maintain that iron grip.
Last year’s midsummer night’s dream of a possible political evolution was finally buried for good on January 2–3, when the grounds outside of the Canadia Industrial Park were turned into Cambodia's latest killing field. There, a combination of security forces and plainclothes thugs reportedly harassed and beat demonstrating garment workers before opening fire on the crowd. They left a scene of bloody carnage, with five dead and over thirty injured. In addition, twenty-three labor activists and workers were taken into police custody and have been held since, without access to families, lawyers or adequate medical treatment. A January 31 opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) press release indicated that a delegation of CNRP MPs-elect and family members will be able to visit these detainees at the maximum-security prison where they are being held on February 4. However, the decision by the Hun Sen regime to largely ignore the international outcry following this bloodshed and to continue its policy of cracking down on the political opposition and on workers still bodes ill for a peaceful conclusion to the present impasse.
An estimated ninety percent of Cambodia's seven hundred thousand garment workers, who help provide trendy clothing for such big brand names as the Gap, Nike, Adidas and Levi Strauss, as well as for discount giant Walmart, are young women from the countryside. They toil long hours making clothing and footwear for a monthly minimum wage of less than one hundred dollars. Some fifty thousand of them had begun striking to raise that wage to $160.
(Representatives of some of these brand name companies signed a letter dated January 17 from the international garment industry to Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing concern over the January 2-3 killings, the rights of the detainees, and the need to uphold trade union law, including ILO Conventions 87 and 98.)
A particularly ominous development in the current battle in the streets for the soul of Cambodia is the appearance of young males without any official designation who reportedly join in using violence to quell dissent. Hun Sen himself, according to Voice of America, was quoted in December as warning of the emergence of this shadowy “Third Hand” if demonstrations continued.
The presence of these “Third Hand” forces has been cited by CNRP official Eng Chhay Eang as the reason for the cancellation of a recent rally in Kandal. The young toughs in civilian clothes were said to be wearing matching red wristbands after being enlisted “to threaten and intimidate opposition supporters.” The Cambodia Daily on January 22 described the young men as “sporting tight-cropped, military-style haircuts.” Some have even put forward the claim that this "Third Hand" could be used in future attempts to assassinate opposition CNRP leaders.
The security forces involved in the labor crackdown also have a jaded past. Brad Adams, the Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the Cambodia Daily on January 9 of the brutal history of Brigade 911 before its reported deployment in the January 2-3 shootings. This Indonesian-trained parachute brigade, commanded by the notorious General Chap Pheakadey, now a member of the Central Committee of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was involved in the brutal human-rights abuses connected with Hun Sen’s 1997 coup against Prince Ranariddh’s political party, FUNCINPEC. On that occasion, according to Adams, “dozens of people were being unlawfully detained and tortured at the 911 base west of Phnom Penh International Airport.” Brigade 911’s history of brutality has apparently written another chapter.
Another report of security-force involvement in the January 2-3 shootings was raised on January 17 by the Global Post. That report asserted that the embassies of certain Asian countries that are major investors in Cambodia’s garment industry “played a behind-the-scenes role in the events leading up to the Cambodian military’s crackdown.” Foreign diplomats were reported to have lobbied an official “from an elite agency whose role has nothing to do with labor strikes: the country’s National Counterterrorism Committee (NCTC).” This appeal was reportedly made under the rationale of protection of the properties of foreign investors. Given the subsequent bloodshed, foreign missions in Phnom Penh have rapidly moved to distance themselves from any implied involvement in human rights abuses. The NCTC—“a powerful, well-funded body with a brigade-sized military unit reportedly in the hundreds”—has not been used extensively to address terrorist threats –which most foreign observers agree are minimal in Cambodia. Rather the NCTC, whose special forces unit, according to Global Post, is commanded by Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a West Point graduate, has acted as the eyes and ears for the Prime Minister in monitoring and, when necessary, cracking down on his political opponents.
Such a description recalls an organization known as "the Voluntary Militia for National Security," more commonly recalled in twentieth century history as "the Blackshirts." This paramilitary organization was made up largely of disgruntled former soldiers who opposed farmers' and laborers' unions. The Blackshirts made use of violence and intimidation to advance their political goals and support their dictatorial leader. Sound familiar?
In 1922 the Blackshirts conducted "the March on Rome" to install Mussolini as Il Duce, a position he held for over two decades. Fascist admirers of Il Duce in Germany and Spain soon came up with similar paramilitary organizations, based on terror and intimidation, and took control of those countries. In the end, however, things did not turn out so well for Mussolini.
There is an eerie echo of the Blackshirts in the reported organization and tactics of Cambodia's security forces and “Third Hand.” Such a repeat of the violent history of the twentieth century in today's Cambodia would be a great tragedy. The world should speak out before the escalating violence and intimidation in the land where the Khmer Rouge once ruled spirals completely out of control.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Cambodia, Surya Subedi, ended a six-day fact-finding mission to Cambodia in mid-January with a call for an investigation into the January 2-3 incident. “I strongly recommend,” he said, “that an investigation be undertaken on who issued and who carried out the order to shoot; if no such order was given, the individuals who fired their weapons must be brought to justice.” This was followed by a January 28 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which reviewed Cambodia’s human-rights record. The Council meeting reportedly reviewed “recent attacks on activists, union members and journalists, violations of freedom of assembly and association, and the recent ban on peaceful assemblies.” According to Al Jazeera America, the Council recommended that Cambodia adopt legislative measures to “promote the enjoyment of freedom of expression in order to protect opposition party members, journalists and human rights defenders from arbitrary arrests and to lift all restrictions to peaceful demonstrations.”
Another key question, however, was raised in a PBS News Hour program broadcast on June 14, 2012 and titled “Are Western Consumers Willing to Pay More for Apparel?” (in order to give young Cambodian workers a living wage). The response by one participant was “I really wonder if American consumers are willing to pay significantly more for their apparel.” Without the commitment of the international community, however, Hun Sen and his “Third Force” will have little to worry about, as it remains business as usual in Cambodia.
Dennis P. Halpin is a former Cambodia analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Image: Flickr/Daniel Lobo. CC BY 2.0.