THE WORSENING human rights situation in Cambodia ought to be deeply troubling to Americans. For starters, much of the unrest stems from poverty-level wages paid by textiles factories that make America’s favorite brands of clothing. Tens of thousands of garment workers went on strike in December, demanding a raise from their current salary of $80 a month. To shut down the protests, the autocratic government of Prime Minister Hun Sen sent security forces that fired into the crowd, killing at least four and wounding about 40.
Thirty well-known apparel brands — including American Eagle Outfitters, the Gap, and Adidas — signed a joint letter to Hun Sen asking for a full investigation of the violence and urged him to take steps to prevent the use of excessive force in the future. The letter was commendable. But these companies must do more for their sentiments to be seen as sincere. If American companies believe Cambodians deserve a living wage, they ought to be willing to pay a little more to manufacture their clothing, just as American consumers ought to be willing to pay more for a pair of jeans.
Cambodia’s troubles run deeper than the garment strikes. For years, a population that endured horrific suffering in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge seemed content with any government that was not genocidal. But recently, a new generation of Cambodians has stepped up to protest widespread corruption and land-grabbing by Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades — longer than any other leader in Asia. Opposition parties joined forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which did extremely well in last year’s election. Many observers believe the party would have won had it not been for vote-rigging by the regime.
Hun Sen’s response to this new political challenge has been to tighten his grip on power. In June 2013, opposition party members were expelled from parliament. After the garment worker strikes — led by the political opposition — Hun Sen banned public gatherings and ordered his forces to violently disperse crowds at Freedom Square in Phnom Penh, leading some to call it Cambodia’s “Tahrir.”
Activists have vowed to continue their fight. That sets the stage for protracted violence. Those who have endured some of history’s worst atrocities at the hands of their government don’t take such action lightly. The Cambodia National Rescue Party has retained the European human rights law firm Global Diligence to investigate the deaths in Freedom Square and collect evidence of other abuses to forward to the International Criminal Court. The court should send a message to Hun Sen that the world will not stand by and watch Cambodians suffer again at the hands of their government.