Garment protest

On Tuesday morning of this week, police in Phnom Penh violently clashed with around 600 striking workers from the SL Garment Processing company. The images that have emerged from the Phnom Penh Post, Radio Free Asia and across face book show police brutally beating strikers and those who appeared to be caught in the middle of the clash. Police swarmed, kicked, used their batons and a whole host of violent tactics against youth, many of whom became trapped and pleaded with police not to be hit. One bystander was shot dead and six protesters received gun- shot wounds (one critical). The protesters themselves managed to injure 27 police and at one stage trapped three police within a Pagoda – which UN staff had to rescue.

Of course this is not the first violent protest to arise in Phnom Penh – Stung Meanchey, the site of this recent protest was also the site of rioting during the recent elections. From January to July of this year there has been an average of 2-3 strikes per week and the Garment Manufacturers Association predicts that 2013 will have the highest number of strikes since it started taking records in 2003. The number of land related protests (both urban and rural) have also sky rocketed in Phnom Penh over the last two years – as have violent crackdowns and retributions by police and government hired thugs. Urban land activists such as Tep Vanny and others from the Dey Grahom and Boeung Kak eviction sites have become renowned for their persistent and creative protests over the last two years or so.

How can we make sense of this situation – especially the increasingly brutal techniques of the Phnom Penh police and military forces? Are we seeing a blimp in Cambodia’s linear trajectory towards good governance and universal human rights? Does increasing police violence merely represent the reactive politics of an authoritarian regime under stress? Is this some long lingering leftover from the Khmer Rouge era – where soldiers and police cannot help but slip into an animalistic and savage mode of being as it is the only mode of authority known in the kingdom? My argument is that although fragments of these explanations can be seen within much of the mainstream coverage of protests over the last few years – implicitly and explicitly, it is crucial to outwardly reject these analytical temptations.

My argument is rather that what is happening in Phnom Penh is a modernisation of the police force rather than merely a manifestation of authoritarian despotism. The police force in Cambodia has always been ‘modern’ in the sense that since its inception during the French colonial period it has been tasked with the dual mandate of regulating the good and bad flows of the population (liberalism) and cracking down on any challenges to the states monopoly on violence (sovereignty). Apart from the 20th century reformation of French military brigades who were established to deal with rural rebellion, one of the early tasks of the 19th century Cambodian police force was to regulate hygiene, prostitution and vaccination; all which were considered a major threat to the French and Cambodian population. Of course this abstract notion of police was imposed on a uniquely patrimonial social system – and Cambodia’s recent history of civil conflict and aid dependence has presented logistical and organisational challenges to the police force which in many cases has seen the force proliferate into small bands who follow local patrons. But arguably, what is occurring now is a modernisation of the police force – where the force is much more aligned with both the interests of capital accumulation and the reinvigorated sovereign state machine.

To make this argument, it is first important to put current Cambodian politics within the context of ‘the coming of the rule of law’. Over the last two decades there have been monumental efforts on the part of the international aid community to push for democratic reform within Cambodia. Cambodia has become in many ways a liberal democratic laboratory for new social institutions and norms which push and expand juridical forms of government. At the same time, juridical and democratic reform have been important rhetorical and discursive elements used by the Hun Sen regime to push its popularity and legitimacy while also arming it with new techniques of controlling the population. It would be easy to pronounce the failure of these efforts and decry the lack of human rights, good governance and rule of law in Cambodia – as nearly all Cambodian analysts are so fond of doing. The judiciary remains anything but impartial, impunity reigns supreme and media stories of government involvement in illegal activities seems to continue on an almost daily basis. Yet rather than stating that the law doesn’t yet ‘work’ in Cambodia , it is much more profitable to question and seek out who the law works for and in what particular ways. It is not simply that the Cambodian police and judiciary are a large ruse, used by the government to cover up its despotic and corrupt ways – otherwise the government would not bother employing the tens of thousands of civil servants who work in the police and judicial sectors, or spending money creating a network of jails and courts throughout the country, or integrating powerful jurists into the upper echelons of the political hierarchy.

Rather the law ‘works’ for a number of important actors. As Timothy Mitchel has convincingly shown for the context of colonial Egypt, the law works not by immediately inoculating peasants into becoming law abiding citizens – or the establishment of a juridical network that upholds the rule of law – but by positing that one particular law supposedly objective and universal (liberal rule) transcends the parochial and subjective laws of local communities. It is this ability to be the sole interpreter and enforcer of the universal law which allows sovereign machines to colonise the daily lives of the newly formed citizenry. In Cambodia there has been a dramatic shift over the last decade from government techniques of repression which have used blunt force (grenade attacks, assassinations, beatings) to forms of repression which use the law as their main referent. Here we can understand the proliferation in defamation suits and the fact that the number of incarcerated doubled between 2005-2009. Donor and government constellations have also used the entry point of law to gain management and control over contested land and natural resources – and been extraordinary successful in drawing protest and discontent into long drawn out juridical processes. NGOs also reproduce themselves through reference to the law – through both aid money granted for all forms of capacity development on the strengthening of ‘good governance’, to the fact that NGOs are situated within a legally constituted space of ‘civil society’. This is of course a somewhat blunt analysis using a snippet of examples, but the point to be made is that the success of the law comes not from its ability to deliver justice, but its ability to align agendas through reference to universal codes which supposedly transcend the local.

Returning to the issue of strikers in Phnom Penh, we can begin to see the peculiarly modern aspects of the recent violent clashes. While the government has increasingly deployed modern disciplinary and governmental forms of repression, so too have protesters increasingly used an array of techniques to challenge exploitative working conditions and land alienation. This ranges from ‘polite’ protests and strikes which fall within the juridical order of the state, to unorthodox and illegal modes of protest (sit-ins, public nudity, the confiscation of wood felled in village lands) to direct challenges to sovereignty (violent collective defence of land, violent confrontation with police). In regard to the more confrontational forms of protest, violent police reaction scan be understood as fulfilling the second role of their modern mandate – the sovereign mandate of repressing any challenges to the states monopolisation on violence. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, for sovereign state law to work, there is required both an instituting form of ‘law making ‘ violence as well as the enduring form of ‘law preserving’ violence. Both can be said to exist in the case of Phnom Penh strike related violence. On one hand, garment strikers are a novel legal issue – both in the sense that the field of law which deals with this problem is still evolving, and that police and military techniques to spatially deal with protesters are also novel and rapidly evolving. More generally, the sovereign rule of law has historically been quite distant from the daily lives of Cambodians – especially the urban and rural poor. In this sense those who have been at the brunt of violence are literally being initiated into the new field of law – often indiscriminately. Perhaps this explains why in recent violent incidents at Stung Meanchey, all fatalities and the majority of injuries have been incurred by those not directly within the protests. The other aspect of the law-violence relationship is that of preserving the integrity of the law. The line between protest against unfair wages or electoral irregularities, and a riot against sovereign rule is often thin – and in Stung Meanchey, twice this year, police violence and protester resistance has pushed protests, even if only for a few hours, into the second mode of protest. It is here that protesters are likely to bear the full brunt of the ‘sovereign’ exception’ – where all forms of violence are tolerated in the exceptional circumstance of restoring law.

But there is also the second mandate of the modern police – to regulate the flows of capital, bodies and objects. It may seem an obvious and overstated point, but workers at the SL Garment factory in Stung Meanchey are situated in a fairly powerless position within global circuits of garment-commodity flows. Singapore owned SL garment processing exports over 80% of its produce to the U.S (primarily Levi Straus who in turn produces for Gap). Although in comparison to other sectors within Cambodia, the garment industry is fairly well regulated, largely free of internal political hierarchies and largely unionised, international efforts to provide a decent wage for workers have largely failed. The ILO project Better Factories which has been successful in conveying information to upper end consumers has been less successful at ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions. The industry has been plagued by safety concerns – mass faintings, a roof collapse (which killed three this year) and dangerous travel conditions for workers (i.e. workers using overcrowded trucks to get to work – a number of which have been involved in fatal collisions). Being on a wage in which workers are often unable to reproduce their own labour ($75US per month), they have had to take matters into their own hands. Factory owners have resisted wage increases often citing the high cost of electricity (although there was a significant increase of about 20% earlier this year – but still below that required to live in Phnom Penh ).

It would be an overstatement to say that police merely work in the interests of capital – after all they do not seek to keep the price of electricity or raw materials low to maximise profit in garment factories. Their concern is limited to the management of bodies (biopolitics) – ensuring the regularised and predictable flows of bodies in the urban environment. That urban police stations have retained the old French era name of ‘office of public order’ is testament to this. Strikes and any form of protest are the antithesis to liberal notions of public order – both disrupting the spatial flows of bodies, and the flows of commodities and hence profit.

But in this sense, police do to a degree work to ensure that bodies do not disrupt major circuits of capital accumulation. No matter how barbaric and violent police act during a strike or protest they are still fulfilling their main function – ensuring that commodities flow – that Cambodian assembled jeans can reach American consumers. After Levi Strauss’ recent decision to stop buying from SL, what becomes clear is not that large powerful buyers are taking responsibility for workers’ rights – as Levi Strauss has merely abandoned its workers- but that within the global division of labour management, it is ultimately police and factory managers embedded in the sovereign state who manage the productivity of workers and decide upon their rights.

It is thus not particularly useful to talk about human rights – as Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben have shown the universal human right is based upon a notion of bare depoliticised life that becomes meaningless outside of state sovereignty. Instead, following Chaterjee and Chakrobarty it may be more helpful to think of garment workers as political workers- devising new political subjectivities and strategies based around their material circumstances rather than abstract notions of rights. Part of this would involve taking seriously the modernising characteristics of the Cambodian police – and their likely continual use of violence to ensure the continual flow of garments produced through cheap labour.

Tim Frewer is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.