A group of 18 labor unions and associations said they will proceed with plans for a public forum in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday, despite City Hall’s rejecting their request, citing public security concerns.
The unions, who are organizing a nationwide strike in the garment industry on March 12 for a higher minimum wage and other demands, sent a letter to City Hall on February 26 informing them of the public forum, to which government and opposition party leaders had been invited to address an anticipated crowd of 30,000 garment workers.
Denial of the unions’ right to gather at Freedom Park comes exactly a week after Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that he had reinstated the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, which he suspended in early January.
“Federations and unions who asked to hold the above event are being asked to hold it at their own offices in order to maintain a good security situation in Phnom Penh,” the municipality said in a statement after meeting with union leaders Tuesday morning.
Signed by City Hall Cabinet Director Keut Chhe, the municipality also said that the public forum should be delayed, claiming the government needed to investigate clashes between strike protesters and military police who shot dead five garment workers and wounded 40 others on January 3.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy said that he would attend Saturday’s forum “to express the support of the CNRP to the labor movement and to their demands.”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng were also invited to join the forum by the union organizers.
Far Saly, president of the National Trade Unions Coalition, said that the unions will attempt to hold the forum regardless of the Ministry of Interior’s final decision.
“They have no law to ban people from rallying and expressing their views,” Mr. Saly said.
“We have already encountered a number of crackdowns, so we are not worried about this. It will show the world how much Cambodia’s government respects human rights.”
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the Freedom Park rally might turn violent, though he did not explain why he had come to that conclusion.
Mr. Dimanche said the unions’ request to hold the rally would be sent to the Interior Ministry for a final decision.
“We ask [the unions] to hold [the forum] in their office as it could lead to a bad atmosphere or violence…it would make anarchy like before,” Mr. Dimanche said.
As part of their seven-point strike platform, the unions are also demanding the release of 21 protesters who were imprisoned following the violent suppression of the minimum wage strikes and demonstrations in January, and the prosecution of those responsible for killing the five garment strike protesters on Veng Sreng Street on January 3.