January 07, 2014 00:00 By Mong Palatino
Price hikes, minimum wage disputes and political corruption spark widespread discontent
Southeast Asia was rocked by street protests during the first week of the new year – a troubling preview of the unfolding political and economic crisis gripping many countries in the region. In Malaysia, consumers rallied against the looming price hikes in petrol, sugar and other basic products. In Cambodia, garment workers conducted a nationwide strike to push their demand for a pay hike. In Thailand, anti-government protesters are preparing to “shut down” Bangkok in the next few days.
If Bersih (clean) was the battle cry of election reform advocates in Malaysia in the past two years, Turun (“down”) was the rallying call of protesters who joined the annual New Year countdown at Dataran Merdeka park in Kuala Lumpur and used the occasion to denounce the rising cost of living in the country.
The action was organised mainly by students belonging to the Reduce Cost of Living Movement (Gerakan Turun Kos Sara Hidup) in response to the decision of the Malaysian government to cut fuel and sugar subsidies, making these products more expensive. In addition, price hikes are also expected in electricity tariffs, assessment rates for Kuala Lumpur properties, public transport fees and toll rates for highways.
Perhaps in anticipation of negative consumer reaction, the government announced that it will implement 11 austerity measures to prove that it is serious about rationalising public spending. But this move didn’t satisfy protesters, who still proceeded with the Turun action.
For writer Zurairi AR, the successful Turun rally provided activists with an important lesson on how to effectively solicit the support of ordinary Malaysians. “The issues most dear to the people and capable of spurring massive turnouts are about civil liberties and bread-and-butter issues,” he said. “Turun was about the falling value of money in our wallets, and just like the others they attracted people from all walks of life.”
Meanwhile in Cambodia, tens of thousands of garment workers participated in a nationwide strike to press the government to raise the monthly minimum wage to $160 dollars (Bt5,300). The current minimum wage is only $80 dollars, but the labour council is only willing to grant a $15 dollar hike in basic pay. As protests intensified, the government agreed to raise the minimum wage by another $5.
The garment sector is a $5 billion dollar export industry in Cambodia which employs more than 600,000 workers. Many of the leading clothing brands in the world get their supply from Cambodia, which has one of the lowest minimum wage rates in the Asia-Pacific.
Workers got the support of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party which vowed to raise wages to $160 if it is able to assume power in the country. “If the minimum wage is not raised to $160 immediately, rising food prices and living expenses will make it impossible for garment workers to address their basic needs, and strikes that have plagued the garment sector lately will continue,” read a statement on the party’s official website.
The opposition has been holding daily protests at the Phnom Penh Freedom Park to push for the ouster of the incumbent government which has been accused of manipulating last year’s election results. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power in the past three decades although his party lost many seats in the polls. The opposition has boycotted the parliament sessions even though it has 55 seats.
The strike of garment workers and the opposition rally produced the biggest street demonstration in Cambodia in recent decades. Unfortunately, these twin protests also unleashed the brutal fangs of state terror when the government ordered a crackdown of the strike and the removal of the opposition’s protest camp.
Four workers were killed and dozens were injured after police and military clashed with striking garment workers in the industrial area of Phnom Penh. Human rights group Licadho described the crackdown as the “worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in fifteen years”.
After the violent dispersal of the strike, the government proceeded to ban the political opposition from staging more rallies in the country’s capital. Even the gathering of two persons in the streets has been reportedly prohibited.
If the Cambodian opposition is already reeling from the recent political clampdown, the opposition forces in Thailand meanwhile are still preparing for their planned occupation of the capital city Bangkok before the end of the month in their bid to topple the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They are still firm in their decision to boycott the February elections as they call for the replacement of the elected government with a so-called “People’s Council” which would supposedly lead the country into a period of transition.
Perhaps Thai protesters can take a cue from their counterparts in Malaysia and Cambodia, where economic issues like price hikes and labour rights are loudly articulated even if the main concern of the opposition is initially focused on election and political issues. In other words, it isn’t enough for protesters to hate the Shinawatra family – whose party has never lost in the polls despite being linked to numerous corruption scandals. It means anti-government protests must also aggressively tackle the economic hardships experienced by ordinary Thais.
So 2014 has started with a loud bang in Southeast Asia. These protests are expected to snowball into bigger movements in the next few months, especially if troubled governments can’t or won’t find peaceful resolutions to the crises.