Kompong Chhnang provincial schoolteachers defied police and provincial and educational officials to elect their first local union leaders on Sunday.
About 30 provincial police officers surrounded the teachers’ meeting house Sunday morning and prevented them from using a megaphone, union leaders said. But police did not prevent more than 200 teachers from entering the hall and casting their votes.
Provincial Police Chief Touch Naruth said the union had not asked for permission from provincial Governor Sou Phirin to hold the election. “We only asked them to stop, we didn’t use any violent means,” he said.
But Cambodian Teachers Association President Rong Chhun said the police action was intimidation and violated the Constitution.
“The police didn’t threaten us, but the teachers were intimidated, the provincial authorities didn’t respect the democratic process and didn’t allow freedom of speech for the people,” he said.
“If we look at Article 41 [of the Constitution], people have the right to meet as long as we aren’t giving them weapons,” he added.
Article 41 of the Constitution says that “Khmer citizens shall have the freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly.”
Rong Chhun said he had given the governor’s office a letter on Wednesday informing him of the upcoming election.
Sou Phirin declined to comment on Sunday. First Deputy Governor Ky Sara said he wasn’t aware of the case but added that, “If [the association] asked us to set up an association, we have to allow them.”
The union has also faced resistance from provincial education officials. On Thursday, Kompong Chhnang provincial education chief Moeung Hua sent a letter to school principals asking them to tell teachers not to join the association.
Union leaders had not asked “top officials” for permission to form the union, Moeung Hua said in the letter. The letter hinted that if there were any actions to “damage the school budget” that the “department would take measures.” The letter did not elaborate.
Rong Chhun said the government feared his union. “The government doesn’t want the association to gain strength in other provinces because when we are united, our demands will succeed.”
Kompong Chhnang is the fourth province to elect local leaders, Rong Chhun said. The others are Sihanoukville municipality, Preah Vihear and Kompong Speu.
Chuon Chan, newly elected deputy president of the Kompong Chhnang branch of the union, said he would “work closely with the education department to ensure that teachers’ salaries increase, and that qualified teachers are selected to teach.”
(Additional reporting by Richard Sine)