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Violence against workers in Phnom Penh could damage Cambodia’s tourism image

The killing of workers from the textile industry who demonstrated for higher wages by the military police shows that the situation in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is getting tenser.

PHNOM PENH- Is the ghost of the Arab Spring Revolution reaching the shores of Southeast Asia? While Thailand is ensnared into a never-finishing protest against its government, Cambodia is shaken by regular protests since the last General Election back to summer 2013.

July reelection of veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen has provoked since mass rallies in the capital with protesters –especially young Cambodians- asking him to leave power and provoking sporadic violence. Opposition has since the July election refused to seat in the newly elected National Assembly and accused the Prime Minister to have rigged the vote. Many mass rallies occurred over the last months while the ongoing protest from textile workers has taken a more violent twist. On Friday, the killing of four workers by the police generated official protests from many NGOs based in the Cambodian capital. A day before, another protest was broke up by military troops with many protesters –including monks- being arrested and brutalized, according to witnesses.

The local human rights group LICADHO said in a statement that at least four civilians were shot dead and 21 injured in what it described as “the worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years.” Amnesty International joined LICADHO in demanding an investigation into the violence.

The statement explained that security forces used live ammunition to shoot directly at civilians. “The use of live ammunition was prolonged and no efforts appear to have been made to prevent death and serious injury,” it said. “Reports suggest that security forces were also injured after being hit with stones.” According to U.N. special envoy on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, it was already the third time since the contested election that authorities killed protesters. After Friday last killings, the Army also issued a statement telling that it would take whatever action would be necessary to defend the government, the King and Cambodia’s constitution.

Although travellers are unlikely to be confronted to the ongoing violence against workers, it could however discourage visitors to stay in Phnom Penh. However, the US Embassy issued on its website a security message to alert U.S. citizens residing in or traveling to Cambodia.  Following the announcement on Saturday January 4 by the Cambodian government of a ban on any public demonstration in and around Phnom Penh, the US Embassy indicates that there is a potential for violence as well as significant restrictions on car circulation around Phnom Penh as the government would block major roads of the capital. The Embassy noted that violence, including fatalities, has occurred at roadblocks in the recent past.  The planned rally by the opposition on Sunday 5 has been however called off, following Friday’s crackdown.

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.