It's too early to say whether the violence resulting in at least four deaths that occurred in Phnom Penh on 3 January, as police and military dispersed protesters in the city's 'Freedom Park', represents a turning point in the long stand-off that has followed last July's disputed national elections.

But there is little doubt that these events, involving not just supporters of Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party but also striking garment workers, have moved the issues involved (both the CNRP’s claim that the elections results were rigged and the garment worker’s demand for greatly increased wages) to a new level of intensity.

In retrospect, and given all that is known about Hun Sen’s determination to hold on to power, it was only a matter of time before his government reacted with force to the long-running series of protest rallies sponsored by the CNRP’s leaders.

For the past several months the government has proceeded to act as if it had no need to take account of the regular protests, receiving foreign delegations and holding talks with both state and party representatives from its closest ally, China. Indeed, as the crackdown took place in Phnom Penh a Cambodian delegation was in Beijing for the first meeting of the Cambodia-China Intergovernmental Coordination Committee, led by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

What probably shifted the government’s position from a grudging measure of tolerance of the protests to this new, forceful response is the role of the striking garment workers.

Cambodia is heavily dependent on the export earnings of its factories producing low-cost clothes and shoes for major European and American companies, representing 80% of all exports and valued in the order of US$5 billion annually. While strikes have been common in recent years, the combination of the CNRP campaign against the election result, Sam Rainsy’s readiness to promise greatly increased minimum wages for factory workers, and a shutdown of Cambodia’s major export earners posed a challenge to the government that it was not ready to accept.

It would be unwise to predict what will happen next, except to suggest that pressure for some form of resolution to the crisis is now much greater than before.

One interesting straw in the wind is an analysis that has just appeared in Xinhua in which various Cambodia commentators suggest that a referendum on the  question of whether fresh election should be held to end the crisis. That such an article should appear in Xinhua is striking, given China’s hitherto unwavering support for Hun Sen. While it is possible to think of Sam Rainsy and his supporters accepting the suggestion of a referendum, it seems unlikely to appeal to Hun Sen. Yet the fact that such an analysis should appear in an official Chinese publication must surely give him pause.

Photo by REUTERS/Samrang Pring.