With unions planning at least three major rallies—including two marches—in Phnom Penh to mark Labor Day on Friday, City Hall has said that it will only allow workers to rally in Freedom Park, promising to “take action” if they attempt to bring their demonstrations onto the streets.
Three groups of unions are planning separate demonstrations involving thousands of members this morning to demand better conditions for workers and to call on the government to halt the drafting of a controversial Trade Union Law, which labor advocates fear will be used to selectively suppress unions that the government does not like.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said his union and five others would hold a 4,000-person-strong rally at Freedom Park; Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said his union would join nine others with about 2,000 workers for a march beginning at Olympic Stadium; and Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said about 7,000 workers would march from Wat Botum.
“We will hand our petition to the National Assembly…to ask to them to ensure decent wages for workers and to improve conditions,” Mr. Thorn said.
“We do not want the government to have a union law because it would restrict union rights,” he said, adding that the petition would also call on the government to arrest Chhuk Bundith, the former governor of Bavet City who shot into a group of protesting workers in 2012, and to drop charges against union leaders involved in protests early last year that were crushed during a wave of violent state suppression.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said on Wednesday, however, that the municipal government would allow workers to gather in Freedom Park and nowhere else.
“We will not allow them to march because it is prohibited because it impacts public order,” he said. “We will not allow marching, but we will allow the rally at Freedom Park.”
Asked Thursday what municipal authorities would do to enforce the ban on marching, Mr. Dimanche said only: “We will take action in compliance with the law.”
Last year, Labor Day came during a government-imposed ban on all public demonstrations and was marked by violence as baton-wielding Daun Penh district security guards lashed out at protesting workers, passersby and journalists during a demonstration staged on Norodom Boulevard.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement Thursday warning Americans to stay away from Friday’s demonstrations, which are scheduled to take place between 8 a.m. and noon.
“Although recent demonstrations in Cambodia have been largely nonviolent, even rallies intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning,” the statement says.
However, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said he did not expect violence during the rallies, given the government’s recent efforts to project an image of peace and cooperation.
“We think there will not be [violent] incidents because now the government is working to promote the ‘culture of dialogue,’ therefore when they use violence it creates a bad reputation for itself and the garment sector,” he said.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who along with fellow opposition leaders helped mobilize garment factory workers in December 2013 for some of the largest demonstrations ever in the sector, said his party had no plans to take part in Friday’s rallies.
“We want unions to express [their demands] in independent ways, and if we get too close to them, it could be counterproductive, but we support their demands,” he said.
Last year, Mr. Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, made a brief appearance at the Labor Day rally, leaving before the government security guards became violent. Mr. Rainsy said the lack of solidarity among unions this year contributed to the party’s decision to stay away.
“There is not a single march or protest or demonstration, so we don’t feel that it would be useful to be part of any small-sized [events],” he said.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)