Cambodia: The Working Class Flexes its Muscles

Brad Forrest

The class struggle is heating up in Cambodia. Currently the country is a constitutional monarchy under the king Norodom Sihamoni. A 1997 coup placed effective power in the hands of the president and strongman Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples Party. It is commonly acknowledged that Sen and his cronies rule with excessive amounts of force and violence.

The garment industry is the lifeblood of the Cambodian economy, and recently a major strike by garment workers over higher wages ended with a government crackdown, resulting in three killed and many more wounded. Military police opened fire on hundreds of workers blocking a road on the southern edge of the capital Phnom Penh.

There have been mass protests and even a general strike as workers attempt to find a way forward in an economically undeveloped country, attractive to international investors because of its exceptionally low wages. As usual, the Cambodian government blames “gangsters” and even “anarchists” for this latest outbreak of the class struggle.

Cambodia has 800 garment and footwear factories employing about 600,000 workers. The workers are asking for a raise to about $160 per month, but some labor experts say a “living wage” in Cambodia would have to be around $283 per month.

At the tail end of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was conquered by the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge guerrillas led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge were so degenerate and inward looking that they destroyed temples, libraries and all things Western. This is exactly the opposite of how a true socialist revolution would go forward.

Some estimate that about 2 million people died under the Pol Pot regime. Nevertheless, the regime was able to implement some progressive economic policies, copied from Mao’s China. These included agrarian reform at the expense of the big landowners and nationalizing the means of industrial production. There emerged a planned economy with a Stalinist-style political structure: a dictatorship of the bureaucracy whose power was based on balancing among the different social classes, though basing itself on a planned economy.

A planned economy is superior to capitalism because it not only leads to greater economic productivity but it operates according to a different logic than capitalism. Under capitalism the means of production are privately owned and they produce under the lash of market competition. Under the capitalist regime the production of profit means that workers’ wages and living conditions are under constant attack, since capitalists have a profit motive to out-sell their competitors by lowering their workers’ wages.

With a planned economy, booms and slumps of overproduction are done away with. The state acts like a big entrepreneur and, if properly implemented, is able to plan production for the benefit of the workers and peasants, so that literally everyone has a job and their basic needs are met.

But a planned economy in an economically backward country like Cambodia can’t produce golden eggs or other miracles. If tomorrow a revolution in Haiti ushered in a planned economy, that dirt poor country would attack inequality, but poverty would remain a fact for some time, unless the Haitian economy was linked up with other economically advanced socialist nations. Socialism was never meant to be limited to one country.

The history of socialist experiments has been limited to poor countries, with wealthier nations having successfully defeated socialist-inspired revolutions. Thus wealthy nations have been able to portray socialism as inferior to capitalism, while ignoring the tremendous industrial and social advances achieved by the planned economies of the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.

In 1995 the Cambodian government transitioned from a somewhat planned economy to market capitalism. Cambodia’s Stalinist-style socialism inevitably failed, and under the capitalist market reforms  —based on the hyper exploitation of workers — economic growth has averaged an impressive 6 percent for the past ten years. However, when the recession of 2008 hit Asia, Cambodia experienced a crushing drop of 23 percent in exports to the lucrative American and European nations, the country’s main markets.

The rumblings of the class struggle are the result of drastically low wages and terrible conditions now that capitalism has been reestablished. The worldwide recession has ushered in a new phase in the class struggle on an international scale, and Cambodian workers will have to find a way back to a democratically planned economy, having learned the lessons from its Stalinist past.