Cambodian Workers Protest Disrespect to Late King

By Sopheng- Cheang 23 October 2012

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Factory managers expressed regret and dismissed a Chinese supervisor on Monday after angry Cambodian garment factory workers demanded that she be punished for tearing up a poster of their late former king.

More than 1,000 workers marched to the Royal Palace after the head of the sewing section of two related factories ripped in half a portrait of former King Norodom Sihanouk she had seized from a worker before the morning shift began. She accused the employees of shirking work.

Sihanouk, who led Cambodia through a half-century of peace and war, died Oct. 15 in Beijing. His body was returned last Wednesday to Cambodia, where a week of official mourning was declared.

Factory manager Khuch Osaphea said the management of the Chinese-owned factories expressed regret over the incident and dismissed the Chinese supervisor and handed her over to authorities for legal action.

Garment exports are Cambodia’s major foreign exchange earner, and as many as 400,000 people work in hundreds of factories in the Phnom Penh area.

The government tries to strike a balance between workers’ demands for higher pay and employers’ desires to keep wages low. Many factories are subcontractors for large Western brands. The factories involved in Monday’s incident produce trousers for US and European markets.

Phnom Penh city police chief Lt-Gen Chuon Sovann said the supervisor was arrested on charges of insulting the king and inciting public disorder, and would be brought to court on Tuesday where she could be formally charged by prosecutors.

He said that if police had not arrived on time, the woman would have been in danger of being physically attacked by the workers, “but after receiving assurances from the police that she would face justice for what she did, they were fully understanding.”

One worker, So Sareth, said she did not understand why China’s government had honored Sihanouk and yet the Chinese supervisor could act so disrespectfully.

“Today this woman dares to tear up the picture of our king, next time she will commit a crime against us workers if she is not punished now,” said So Sareth.

The workers traveled by foot and truck to the palace, carrying another portrait of Sihanouk. When they arrived, they all knelt before a giant portrait of the late king on the palace wall, to which they expressed regret for his portrait being destroyed.

A food vendor who sells meals to the workers in front of the factories said he also stopped business on Monday to join the protest.

“She had insulted our king. Her act cannot be tolerated,” Sokun Theara said.