Opposition Party Threatens Nationwide Labor Strikes

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Wednesday announced that his party could stage nationwide labor strikes in protest of disputed election results, and said the CNRP would begin an international campaign to make the CPP government a pariah state.

Mr. Rainsy’s comments came just a day after lawmakers from the ruling CPP voted in the National Assembly to give another five-year term to Prime Minister Hun Sen and approve a sizeable reshuffle of his Cabinet.

“In the air is an idea of general strikes, so the whole country for one day we will call for strikes. All factories, all civil servants, all shopkeepers will stop working that day, this is one possible idea,” he said at a press conference held at the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh.

“We will conduct a worldwide campaign to delegitimize this government,” Mr. Rainsy continued. “We appeal to international signatories of the Paris Peace Agreements to…condemn this newly formed government. Do what you can to make this government know it is not legitimate,” he said.

Diplomats representing Cambodia’s major donors and many of the signatories of the Paris Peace Agreements attended the controversial opening session of the National Assembly on Monday, despite the CNRP boycott. The U.S. Embassy sought to clarify afterward that their ambassador’s attendance was not an endorsement.

While the CNRP has confirmed that it sought the position of National Assembly president in negotiations with the CPP last week, Mr. Rainsy said that the party had not changed its position that irregularities during the July 28 election must be investigated before it agrees to join a CPP-led government.

Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech at the Peace Palace on Wednesday that if the CNRP attempts to stage further mass demonstrations against his government, he will release a recording of the negotiations showing that Mr. Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, had backed down from their demands for an election investigation.

Mr. Rainsy said that the 55 boycotting CNRP lawmakers would take their seats in the National Assembly “only once there is the creation of an independent committee to investigate election irregularities,” along with a program of reforms to prevent further land-grabbing, deforestation and rights abuses.

“[W]e want the CPP to show their political will to implement crucial reforms first before we commit ourselves to join the National Assembly, because if we join now without having anything concrete…it will be totally useless because once we have joined them we will be powerless,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“I think our leverage is strongest now outside parliament, continuing to denounce the constitutional coup and delegitimize the current government rather than joining the National Assembly,” he added.

Cheam Yeap, who on Tuesday was reappointed as the CPP’s chairman of the National Assembly’s powerful finance and budget committee, dared Mr. Rainsy to try to rally the international community to cut off ties with Cambodia.

“I would like to tell Sam Rainsy that he should call all 200-something countries and do it. It is going to be useless because we now have the National Assembly here, the government and the court,” he said.

“Sam Rainsy has the spirit of a national traitor telling others not to fund Cambodia,” Mr. Yeap added.

While labor strikes and other efforts to pressure the one-party CPP government may be effective in pushing the ruling party to cede some reforms, the opposition is unlikely to force Mr. Hun Sen to meet any of their current demands, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

“It depends on what [the CNRP] demands. If they want control of the National Assembly, I don’t think the CPP will agree to that, because if [the opposition] controls [the] National Assembly, then the next CPP government will be a lame duck that can’t do anything,” Mr. Virak said.

“If they are demanding something reasonable that [the] CPP can agree to, I think pressure might work,” he said, adding that the CNRP was unlikely to mobilize the international community in its attempts to delegitimize the government as long as the CPP kept the door open for opposition involvement in governing the country.

“I think it is a dangerous game because I think the international community is not united and won’t be united [in condemning a one-party CPP government]. Especially when the CPP is still open for talks with the CNRP and open to giving seats to the CNRP,” he said.

Thida Khus, chairwoman of the Committee to Promote Wom­en in Politics, said that it could be possible to exert pressure on the government by disrupting the economy, particularly in the garment sector, which accounts for more than 80 percent of exports from Cambodia and employs about 500,000 workers.

“I think it is possible [to mobilize garment workers for a general strike]. If you look at what [the workers] are saying, it would be the only opportunity for them to get the things that they need, and they have struck before. Not all garment workers, but maybe big federations,” she said.

Chea Mony, the head of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union, said that he would rally his nearly 100,000 members for such a strike. Ath Thorn, the head of the country’s largest coalition of independent trade unions, said he would need to consider the impact of the strike on his members and know exactly what the strikes were for.

Sam Aun, the head of a coalition of dozens of pro-CPP unions that claim hundreds of thousands of workers, said that he had no interest in backing Mr. Rainsy’s proposed strike. “The workers and I have never thought about joining demonstrations with the CNRP because we know he [Mr. Rainsy] holds demonstrations only for his own power,” Mr. Aun said.

As for getting the international community to condemn Cambodia’s new government, Ms. Khus said that it would likely take the suppression of a massive popular uprising before foreign donors considered sanctions or cutting off ties with the current government.

“I think the international community will not react until there is a big disaster happening here,” she said.

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