A month ago, I stood outside Cambodia’s National Assembly with hundreds of Buddhist monks. They chanted in Sanskrit and tossed lotus petals into a crowd of protesters, blessing them. Many of them had walked from rural villages to Phnom Penh over 10 days. They rallied at the palatial seat of the country’s parliament, to mark International Human Rights Day and hopefully draw the government’s attention to the rights Cambodia’s people have yet to fully grasp—rights related to labor, land and a fair legal system.
People passed out water bottles and wrapped towels around their heads to protect themselves from the harsh midday sun. Others held up signs (“WE ARE WOMEN WE ARE NOT SLAVES”) and loudspeakers buzzed, ready to call people to action. We were not supposed to be there; the government had prohibited marches. I searched the crowd, waiting for something to happen.
But it was peaceful. Despite a day filled with marches and demonstrations, Phnom Penh remained relatively calm. The only government reaction: quietly relocating a dozen protesters who had camped outside the U.S. embassy.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the demonstrations have taken a dramatic and deadly turn. On Jan. 2, after escalating tension over the minimum wage, police shot AK-47s and handguns into a crowd of protesters, killing at least four and injuring more than 29. Most of them were garment workers—the very people I traveled to Cambodia to meet. Read More