Labor unions on Thursday denounced the Phnom Penh Municipality’s decision to forbid a massive International Labor Day march on Sunday, following the mysterious appearance of graffiti apparently left by the outlawed Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
Permission for the march of an intended 3,000 participants—which would have been the biggest since the funeral of union leader Chea Vichea in January 2004—was denied at an April 26 meeting between labor unions, human rights groups and the municipality and presided over by Deputy municipal cabinet Chief Suon Rindy.
“Suon Rindy said that it might cause a traffic jam and insecurity, taking the example of the appearance of CFF graffiti,” Chhorn Sokha, deputy president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said at a news conference Thursday.
On April 22, mysterious graffiti bearing the CFF acronym appeared in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon and Daun Penh districts. The graffiti attacks occurred ahead of today’s eighth anniversary of the formation of the US-based, anti-communist group, which headed a failed attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh in 2000.
While some senior Ministry of Interior officials said there was no indication the CFF would strike again, a senior municipal military policeman said his unit was legitimately concerned about a CFF attack after the graffiti attacks.
“CFF is doing things like this, so we need to be careful,” he said Thursday on condition of anonymity.
Union leaders said the May 1 march was, in part, intended to draw attention to a virtual ban on all demonstrations and strikes since the 2003 anti-Thai riots.
Speaking at Thursday’s press conference, CCAWDU President Ath Thorn said that some participants would defy the city’s order and march from Wat Botum to the newsstand off Sihanouk Boulevard where Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down.
Later Thursday, he said plans to defy the order had not been finalized and that he had been invited to meet Suon Rindy this morning.
Municipal officials indicated they may instead allow a rally at Wat Phnom, labor leaders said.
Suon Rindy on Thursday said he was too busy to comment. According to union leaders, Suon Rindy told them the municipality does not have enough police to guard the requested march.
“They say they don’t have the forces to protect us, but they have the forces to break us up, including the dogs,” said Sok Thol, director of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation Education.
Ear Chan Na of the Student Movement for Democracy said at the news conference that freedom of assembly has become so circumscribed in Cambodia that during a recent visit by the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party his group was not even permitted to protest border encroachment inside their own offices.
Alonzo Suson of the American Center for Labor Solidarity said a Sunday rally would be the first time Cambodian unions and human rights group are gathering in a coalition.
“The groups have a common cause: The limitations on freedom of assembly,” he said. “In other countries it is routine to ask permission to demonstrate, but usually permission is granted. For the last several years that has not been the case in Cambodia. There is a lot of frustration”
Suson said high-ranking officials from the US labor movement will attend events Sunday, but he said he hoped the coalition would stick to an agreement to abide by the municipality’s orders.
“Defying it would be a dangerous situation,” he said. “There are signals the municipality will accept a rally.”
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project and president of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said he was also afraid of a crackdown if the march ban was defied.
“To be good, we should not march,” he said.
Asked whether police will violently disperse any march on Sunday, Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Heng Pov said: “I listen to the governor, Kep Chuktema.”