More than 3,000 union workers gathered near Wat Botum on Sunday to celebrate the first International Labor Day held in a public place since 2002.
“We come together to be united as a force to help all workers,” garment worker Ai Sreipov said.
Joined by representatives from human rights groups, the US labor movement and the US Embassy, the workers said they hoped the celebration would mark a new turn in the government’s views on public demonstrations.
The majority of workers came from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union and the tourism workers’ union.
On Friday, city officials granted permission for the rally after denying permission for a short march, citing security and traffic concerns.
In a letter to Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers dated April 25, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and secretary of state Khann Savoeun wrote: “Before and after the formation of the government, the political situation in the country is not secured because of the political deadlock, so we can determine that it is easy to cause disorder and public insecurity.”
The letter also said that a law on demonstrations that was ratified on Dec 27, 1991, ahead of the 1993 Constitution, is still in effect.
Khann Savoeun could not be reached for comment Sunday.
CCAWDU President Ath Thorn said now that the government has proof a rally can take place without a disturbance, it will be easier to get a march permit in the future.
While some expressed disappointment that workers weren’t allowed to march, speech after speech emphasized that the rally was a historic gathering.
Alonzo Suson, a representative from the labor NGO American Center for International Labor Solidarity, which helped fund the event, called the rally “a start.”
But two unions, the Free Trade Union and the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, did not join the rally to protest the prohibition against marching.
Instead, about 60 members burned incense and said prayers in front of the newsstand where former FTU president Chea Vichea was killed on Jan 22, 2004.
Members of the government-backed Cambodian Union Federation were also absent. CUF president Chuon Mon Thol said Sunday his union was invited but did not participate. A limited police presence could be seen at both events, with small numbers of uniformed officers on the edges and plain-clothes police in the crowd.
“Nothing strange [happened] because they had the permission from the municipality,” police Commissioner Heng Pov said.
He said, contrary to earlier reports that police were worried the outlawed Cambodian Freedom Fighters would use the occasion to act, police had only feared criminals might have inserted themselves into the crowd and inspired looting.
(Additional reporting by Eric Wasson.)