Authorities Threaten Protesting Unionists With Crackdown

A police official in Kompong Speu province said Thursday that the military might confront garment workers protesting the arrests of two colleagues if they did not stop demonstrating outside provincial government buildings.

Around 600 workers from the Hong Kong-owned Agile Sweater factory protested outside the provincial court, government and police headquarters in Chbar Mon City Thursday, calling for the release of two workers who were jailed on Wednesday after being charged with fraud and incitement for their efforts to establish a new union branch at the factory.

A unionist rallies workers during a protest on Thursday outside the Kompong Speu Provincial Court (Mai Vathana)
A unionist rallies workers during a protest on Thursday outside the Kompong Speu Provincial Court (Mai Vathana)

Sam Sak, chief of the provincial police’s serious crimes bureau, said prosecutor Keo Sothea announced to workers outside the court Thursday afternoon that the military would confront them if they continued to protest.

“The prosecutor said that next time they come to interfere, we will stop using the police or military police to observe them. Instead, we will use soldiers,” Mr. Sak said, before voicing his personal support for such a decision.

“If they need to open fire, fire. If they need to hit, hit,” he said.

Chhim Bunthoeun, provincial commander for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, said his soldiers would not be involved in any sort of violence against protesters.

“Our force is not involved with those things. The soldiers respect only their commanders,” he said. “We cannot do that thing in the middle of the town like that.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Sothea for comment were unsuccessful.

Chhim Rithy, a judge at the provincial court, said that he had left work early Thursday and had not seen the prosecutor threaten protesters with military force.

However, he said that from what he had observed in the morning, the protesters had been rude and could face court action for disrupting the work of judges and prosecutors.

“They demonstrate and insult court officials, saying, ‘You have a bachelor’s degree, but you are working blindly; all [you] know is how to arrest the people,’” Judge Rithy said.

The protesters from Agile Sweater are calling for the release of the two jailed unionists, Phuong Phary and Y Thary, who stand accused of threatening and beating other workers in their efforts to establish a branch of the Union Federation of Asean Workers (UFAW).

Supporters of the men claim that they were targeted after breaking away from a factory-affiliated union in an effort to start the UFAW branch. A third man who broke away to help set up UFAW, Heang Dy, is currently wanted by police and on the run.

Mr. Sak, the provincial police official, said police were also searching for five or six additional unionists they believed had committed criminal acts in the process of starting the UFAW branch.

“They prevented the workers from going to work and disturbed the factory,” he said.

Trek Neang, a UFAW member who protested Thursday, said the protests would not cease until the two arrested men were released.

“We will not stop protesting until we get a better resolution.”

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