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Witness to a protest on the streets of Phnom Penh


I huddled behind a large wooden vase with my laptop pressed against my chest. I knew I should probably flee up seven floors to the safety of our room, but the urge to stay was stronger. Shouting rattled my ear drums much like stone and water cannons had rattled the glass hotel front just moments earlier.

Protests in downtown Phom PenhIt had started with sirens wailing which forced us out of bed – not an uncommon sound in our corner of Phnom Penh – but the volume and frequency were persistent. From our window we could see a stream of police vehicles and fire trucks blocking the bridge just outside our hotel. Police officers decked in riot gear were unloading and organizing. Just a little further down the road we could see a similar accumulation of people.

We had no idea what was happening and went about our day. Pete, off to class on the second floor, and me, to the lobby for breakfast. My coffee and toast were hastily delivered, but then soon grew cold as I took up my hiding spot behind the vase.

The large hotel entrance was near empty, all employees had rushed to stand street-side and witness the action. Even Pete had ran past me, camera in hand, ready to capture the activity in front of us. Be careful, I called after him, not really expecting him to hear me. Adrenaline and his instinct to capture had surely taken over.

Protester carrrying rocks, Phnom Penh cambodiaIt wasn’t long before he was back inside as the momentary panic had passed and attention was again turned to the crowd continuing to brew back across the bridge. Those few protestors who had broken through and drawn attention right in front of our hotel continued down the street towards the centre of town. There weren’t many of them. I suspect they didn’t get very far.

Pete was buzzing as he came back in. “You should probably take that upstairs,” he said, motioning to the laptop still pressed against my chest. I nodded, and peeled myself away from my hiding spot.

*****

He returned to class and I sat at our window, alone, watching actions unfold. Activity would surge and recede, the protestors would make a push forward, throwing stones as far as they could reach. A vehicle was overturned and set on fire. The police would push back with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water. The crowd would retreat.

Pete and I messaged back and forth about what we could each see from our prospective spots. Just when we thought it was over and things were calming, there would be a new push, new retaliation, new resistance.

And then, the unthinkable. I mean, we’ve seen this before on the news, but not played out right in front of us.

Rubber bullets gave way to live ammunition. (At first, I didn’t want to believe Pete’s insistence that those were real bullets being fired. Reading reports later would prove that I was wrong.) Captured protestors, with arms raised and in obvious submission, were also savagely beaten by those arresting them. Protesting monks who stood out in the crowd with their bright orange garb were not immune to the brutal force.

Was this real? I couldn’t bring my mind to wrap it. A message from Pete confirmed that he would not be leaving the hotel for his scheduled practicum that day (thank goodness), and that the hotel was considering putting us on total lockdown.

*****

It didn’t last much longer. The protesters had been defeated and many arrested. They disbanded and gave up their quest to walk to the residence of the Prime Minister and deliver their message.

Their plight is one common to this part of the world – one of being overworked in deplorable and unsafe garment factories while earning less than the minimum wage. The workers from this particular factory serve H&M, the Gap, and other global brands. They have already been protesting for months to no avail.

“We are embarrassed that you have seen this,” said those Cambodians we talked to about it later.

They were embarrassed? I was embarrassed – sitting there in my cheap H&M pants, supporting the discount retailer that these protestors were actually rallying against. I was a part of the problem. I was part of the reason why an innocent woman lost her life via a stray bullet.

It’s easy for us to forget, while on the other side of the world, that a simple decision of where we buy our cheap clothes causes ripples somewhere else. Or in this case, brutal, terrifying waves. Not only of crippling poverty, but of a desperate voice met by tyrannical violence.

This protest, which resulted in devastating injuries and death, barely made the news around the world. And had I not seen it for my own eyes, I might have never given this issue a second thought.

But now I must.

Riot police on the streets of Phnom Penh

It is difficult to be “citizen detectives” for every purchase we make – especially in an industry rife with complex supply chains and given the fact that corporations have the extensive means to control their image.

But I am trying. And if you want to learn more, consider the following reading (although realize that some of these articles are dated):

I am halfway through this book: The China Price, and it gives a very thorough and detailed look at why my $10 H&M leggings were so cheap, and who is really paying the price.

Several readers recommended another book, No Logo by Naomi Klein, which will be next on my list.

Are those unethical clothing brands hiding in your closet? A list of ten brands that are likely there.

“The tricky part is finding clothing that has actually been made ethically.” Yes, sweatshops still make most of your clothes.

An expose on 60 big brands that use sweatshop labor.

An all-encompassing list of “good” retailers does not exist. But this one is a start to ethical shopping.

How to buy clothes ethically, the Canadian edition.

And for those of you who want to take it a step further, please consider tweeting this article to @HM and @Gap. Maybe they’ll hear us.

Much more by this author on her very excellent blog, HeckticTravels.com.

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