Anger mounts after trade union leader Chhim Sithar jailed for incitement and causing social unrest
Cambodia union leader Chhim Sithar waves to supporters as she leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh on May 25 after a court sentenced her to two years for leading a strike against the country's biggest casino to demand the reinstatement of workers laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by AFP)
Cambodia’s Constitutional Council has formally barred the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP) from contesting the July 23 national election with human rights groups accusing the government of escalating a long-running crackdown ahead of the poll.
According to the official Agence Kampuchea Presse, a decision by the National Election Committee (NEC) to not register the CLP or the smaller Khmer United Great Nation Party was upheld during a plenary session held here on May 25 morning under President Im Chhun Lim.
No reason was provided for its ruling.
Both parties were refused registration for failing to provide original documents regarding their formation. The CLP claimed the documents were lost during a police raid six years ago and noted the NEC had not prevented the party from contesting last year’s commune elections.
Notice that the CLP’s appeal had failed was served as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced a trade union leader to two years behind bars, and after 14 opposition activists had been released from prison following a written apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union and leader of striking workers at the NagaWorld casino complex in Phnom Penh, was jailed for incitement and causing social unrest.
Eight colleagues were handed suspended jail terms of one to three years.
Their sentences prompted an angry response from civil society groups who – along with Western embassies – have followed the 18-month dispute over NagaWorld casino’s sacking of 365 workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The convictions of Chhim Sithar and the others is a blatant attack on unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for research.
“This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people,” she said.
David Kode, advocacy and campaigns leader at CIVICUS, called for her immediate release saying “this verdict is a clear abuse of the judicial system” and was just the latest blow to Cambodian civic freedom which is rated “repressed” by CIVICUS Monitor.
“The charges brought against her are in retaliation for her continued activism, and this unjust verdict will intimidate and stifle the efforts of those advocating for workers’ rights,” he said. "The Cambodian government must respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said authorities had used the “bogus charge” of incitement to commit a felony against union members as part of broader efforts to crackdown on dissent.
“Cambodia’s human rights situation is spiraling inexorably downward to the point where the government responds to any sort of challenge, real or perceived, with a maximum display of intimidation and punishment,” he said.
Her sentence was delivered at a sensitive time, ahead of the polls, and followed this week’s arrests of three farmers from the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community and an advisor, for plotting a ‘peasant revolution’ – sparking small but rare protests in the capital.
The decision regarding the CLP was not unexpected and will all but guarantee Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party will repeat its 2018 electoral performance by winning all 125 seats to be contested in the National Assembly at the poll.
His crackdown, alleged plots and prosecution of more than a hundred opposition supporters in recent years have rankled Western countries, which were Cambodia’s primary source of aid during the post-war reconstruction decades of the 1990s and 2000s.
After Chhim Sithar’s Nov. 26 arrest at Phnom Penh airport – following her return from Melbourne where she had attended the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress – Ned Price, a spokesman for the US State Department, called for her immediate release.
The European Union has also threatened sanctions, following the closure of the independent media outlet Voice of Democracy and the incarceration of former CNRP Kem Sokha, who is serving a 27-year sentence for treason.
But on Tuesday, Hun Sen told foreign governments and their embassies in Phnom Penh to “stay silent” until after the July 23 ballot, saying: “From now until the election, please be quiet. Let us use local rules to solve the problem of democracy in Cambodia.”
However, in perhaps a sign of the times, 14 jailed activists from the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – the forerunner of the CLP – have received a Royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni after writing an apology to Hun Sen.
All 14 were convicted of “incitement” and tied to a plot by CNRP leader in exile, Sam Rainsy, who attempted to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, 2019, claiming he would oust Hun Sen through a popular revolution. The bid was thwarted after airlines refused to let him board.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin told the government-friendly Khmer Times that they ‘did the right thing by apologizing for previous misdemeanors’ and he disputed claims by human rights NGOs that they were political prisoners.
“As we can see, all the activists admitted their mistake and their involvement with the former opposition leader of the CNRP, therefore, they were pardoned by the King,” Chin Malin said.
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