Pang Vanny says that before this year, he never thought of joining protests or fighting for labor rights.
Five months in prison changed that.
Mr. Vanny was arrested on January 3, when military police cracked down a violent demonstration on Veng Sreng Street—part of nationwide garment worker protests demanding a minimum monthly wage of $160.
At least five people were shot dead and more than 40 were injured during the clash, both of which Mr. Vanny denies taking part in.
“It is an injustice what they did to us,” said Mr. Vanny, a soft-spoken 38-year-old who has been working in the garment sector for 10 years. “I will join future protests because of what happened to me.”
Mr. Vanny was among 23 men who were locked up in prison and charged with intentional violence and property damage during the January protests, which dovetailed with demonstrations being led by the opposition CNRP.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down a verdict on Friday, convicting all 23 men with suspended sentences, allowing them to leave the court as free men with criminal records.
Before his arrest, Mr. Vanny didn’t even know if he was part of a union, he said. In prison, he met fellow inmate Vorn Pao, a prominent labor leader and president of an association of mostly motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers.
“We spoke many times,” said Mr. Vanny. “He showed me the injustice of it all. He showed me we can fight back.”
On Sunday, Mr. Vanny joined Mr. Pao, with other former inmates and monks, for a Buddhist ceremony and dinner at the Phnom Penh home of Kem Sokha, vice president of the CNRP.
Mr. Sokha, whose party was noticeably absent from protests demanding the prisoners’ release, said his family, and not his party, organized the event.
During the months the men spent in prison, Mr. Sokha said the CNRP kept a low profile in efforts to free the men so that the case would not be further politicized. The government claimed that the violent protests outside factories around the end of last year were directly linked to demonstrations being led by the CNRP in Freedom Park.
“On behalf of the leader, we did not go because we do not want others to accuse us of being behind the issue,” Mr. Sokha told reporters gathered at his house.
Mr. Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association, said his immediate plans are to appeal the convictions against him and other protesters and file a formal complaint against the military police that killed at least five workers.
“We commit and swear in front of monks that although we have been imprisoned for five months it will not break our spirit,” he said during the ceremony. “Our mission…has not finished as long as there are violations of human rights, workers’ rights and the country still does not move toward democracy.”
Baor Sarath, 26, who also spent the past five months in prison, was a security guard at a disco before his door was kicked down by military police on January 3. He also denies any involvement in the protests that led to his imprisonment and criminal conviction.
Mr. Sarath’s wife, a garment worker, had given birth to their first child four days before his arrest.
“I was crying everyday in prison,” he said. “I missed my wife and child.”
Mr. Sarath said he also plans to become active in the country’s labor movement, particularly in efforts to improve working conditions for the country’s 600,000 garment workers, mostly young women, like his wife.
“I feel very, very angry. I was innocent and they put me in jail. From now on, if there are any protests, I will join,” Mr. Sarath said.
“My bosses know that I’m innocent and said they’ll give me my job back,” he added. “But I won’t get those five months back.”