Free Trade Union President Chea Mony was detained on Monday morning along with two of his colleagues as they attempted to lead more than 1,000 workers from Russian Boulevard to a Labor Day march in the center of Phnom Penh.
Chea Mony, his deputy secretary-general Yan Roth Keopeisei and deputy union leader Chea Vaneath were detained in Russei Keo district by police at about 9 am, when they tried to meet with workers who were blocked by riot police from entering the city.
The three union leaders were released without charge at about 11 am.
Lines of police with batons and shields kept Russian Boulevard sealed off and tried to disburse the several hundred mostly female protestors who had gathered near Tuk Thla market, but they refused to leave, clogging the streets and snarling traffic.
Russian Boulevard was not the only area where Labor Day protestors found themselves prevented from reaching the city center.
At about 10 am, some 100 workers in Chamkar Mon district attempted to march along Norodom Boulevard to the National Assembly building.
When police blocked their path near the Japanese Embassy, several protestors began hurling gravel at them.
“The police used patience, the workers used violence against the police,” said Chamkar Mon district police chief Uch Sokhon. He added that one police officer was injured on both feet by stones thrown by protestors.
At Stung Meanchey Bridge in Tuol Kok district, intervention and military police armed with AK-47s and batons stood on guard at the bridge, along with two fire trucks to block workers from entering the city.
Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said more than 600 officers were deployed throughout the city to prevent workers from gathering at the National Assembly for a May Day parade.
“We didn’t commit any violence against the workers,” Touch Naruth said.
Two additional fire trucks were sent to block the protestors on Russian Boulevard, and Sam Rainsy, leader of the party that bares his name, arrived shortly after 9 am.
Sam Rainsy phoned Minister of Interior Sar Kheng asking him to intervene, but police continued to block the protestors.
Sam Rainsy, his bodyguards and several hundred laborers eventually slipped in small groups past the police at about 10 am and joined with up several hundred other workers near the Royal University of Phnom Penh, to make their way toward Independence Monument.
At the monument, they met several hundred marchers from the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association and went on to the newsstand at Wat Langka where Chea Mony’s brother, former FTU President Chea Vichea, was gunned down in January 2004.
“The government abused the Constitution and my rights,” Chea Mony told a crowd of several hundred at the newsstand shortly before noon.
“The government doesn’t have the goodwill to provide better living standards for workers and teachers,” he said.
Speaking at the newsstand, Sam Rainsy said he condemned Chea Mony’s arrest.
“I strongly support workers’ demands,” he added.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha was also present.
“By preventing the workers from marching, the government has shown its cowardliness in giving people freedom,” he told the crowd.
CITA President Rong Chhun said Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had not been invited to the march, but that his organization welcomed them anyway.
Russei Keo district Governor Khlaing Huot said Chea Mony was not detained but merely brought to a meeting with local authorities.
“We explained to him our difficulties and the law,” Khlaing Huot claimed.
Phnom Penh municipality had rejected separate requests by Chea Mony and the Cambodian Independent Teacher’s Association to march from the National Assembly to Wat Langka to mark the international labor day holiday.
Municipal officials said the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions, which is affiliated to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, was already scheduled to gather at the Assembly, so additional groups could not be granted permission to do so.
CCTU officials did, however, not gather at the Assembly, choosing instead to attend a ceremony at Chenla Theater organized by Adhoc and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group of 18 local human rights NGOs.
At Chenla Theater, the rights groups called on the government to implement the labor law.
“Although we have an acceptable labor law, in practice, the enforcement and implementation of that law is not effective,” Adhoc President Thun Saray said.
In a statement, CHRAC called on government officials to increase civil servant wages to at least $100 per month, and all other workers to minimum wages of at least $82 a month.
“CHRAC and the union federations have noted that the current worker’s wages are still so low that the workers cannot have a decent life,” CHRAC’s statement read.
“Workers have insufficient money to pay for healthcare and medical treatment when they fall ill due to their overload of work and malnutrition,” it added.
At the NGO Womyn’s Agenda for Change, about 200 workers outlined their demands, which included implementing sexual harassment laws, increasing wages and punishing factories that shut down unexpectedly and fail to pay their workers.
Participants said WAC had also asked the city to march but were denied a permit.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government does not abuse workers’ rights.
He added that the government cannot meet workers’ demands to raise pay and reduce working hours, because this would deter investors.
In a radio broadcast from Sihanoukville, where he was attending an inauguration ceremony, Hun Sen dismissed complaints made during the day’s activities, saying that he was in fact attuned to Cambodian workers’ true wishes.
“Some politicians want to reduce working hours. But the workers want to increase working hours to make more money,” the prime minister said in a speech broadcast on radio.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren, Prak Chan Thul and Whitney Kvasager)