Unions Plan to Defy Protest Ban, Hold Rally

Labor union officials on Wednesday forged ahead with plans to rally for International Workers’ Day today, but said they would not be gathering at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park after authorities on Wednesday set up razor wire around the protest square.

Alternate plans to gather in front of the National Assembly have been made and workers are still expected to converge on the capital from the provinces despite the ban, said Ek Sokpheakdey, secretary-general of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.

A banner is strung across Norodom Boulevard in central Phnom Penh on Wednesday ahead of International Workers' Day on Thursday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
A banner is strung across Norodom Boulevard in central Phnom Penh on Wednesday ahead of International Workers’ Day on Thursday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

The workers will call for an increase in the minimum wage and the release of garment workers and activists detained in January strikes.

“The workers will be there at 8:30 a.m.,” Mr. Sokpheakdey said.

“We will march to the CPP and CNRP offices to hand in our petition to demand that the government release the 21 people and drop all charges against 23 people and to re-discuss a minimum wage of $160.”

He said about 5,000 workers were expected to turn out in defiance of a ban on public gatherings in place since January.

Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina said 17 unions and associations were rallying their workers to gather.

“We are not worried about a crackdown, since we will do it in a peaceful and nonviolent way,” the union leader said.

Since November, authorities have twice lethally repressed garment-sector protests, resulting in the shooting deaths of at least six people.

No authorities have been arrested, but 23 unionists and labor activists are on trial for their roles in January strikes. Two teenagers are also being tried for their involvement in a November strike protest.

Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng on Wednesday issued an order saying that today’s planned gatherings would also not be allowed.

City Hall will “not allow the [unions] to hold this day at Freedom Park or other public locations, since Freedom Park is under investigation by a research committee concerning violence on Veng Sreng Street,” the order says, referring to one of the sites of January’s repressed protests.

National military police spokesman Brigadier General Kheng Tito said that his authorities were prepared to enforce the order.

“We will prevent them from holding it since the authority do not allow them to do it,” he said. “If there is crime, we will make arrests.”

As razor wire was unraveled around Freedom Park on Wednesday morning to prevent today’s International Workers’ Day gatherings, the government also got to work promoting the day in its own manner.

Banners were erected along Norodom and Russian boulevards in Phnom Penh calling for people to “say NO to violent demonstration,” “eliminate work injury, mass fainting and traffic accident” and “comply with law to protect interests of both workers and employers.”

In remarks released by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng extolled the virtues of the country’s biggest economic sector but warned that May 1 celebrations should be tempered.

“We must celebrate Labor Day on May 1 in a happy and friendly way and avoid using this occasion as one to promote or incite the public to commit crimes, murders or protests to violate social security,” he said.

The remarks were accompanied by a recording of a song thanking Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, for bringing economic development to the country.

“We have graduated and have good jobs, we have good standards of living now and we are on the right track,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)

dara@cambodiadaily.com, mengleng@cambodiadaily.com

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