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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - For boycott, time is needed

Thousands of workers from SL Garment Processing factories block traffic in Phnom Penh’s city centre on Friday
Thousands of workers from SL Garment Processing factories block traffic in Phnom Penh’s city centre on Friday. HENG CHIVOAN

For boycott, time is needed

Sporadic demonstrations and political haggling have failed to prompt an independent review of July’s election results, so the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is turning to the economy.

Along with the threat of a one-day, nationwide strike, CNRP president Sam Rainsy on Wednesday urged the international community, businesses included, to “not engage” with the “illegitimate” government of the Cambodian People’s Party, which claims it bested the CNRP in a vote marred by myriad allegations of fraud.

But analysts say Rainsy’s ability to apply pressure through economic means is limited at best. They point out that the CNRP doesn’t have enough sway to influence the international business community and that a daylong strike would not fracture the economy enough to gain the necessary bargaining chips.

“All of those institutions have their own rules on how to work with the government, how to apply pressure to the government, how to invest in this country or that country,” political analyst Kem Ley said, referring to international businesses.

Historically, a few common factors are needed for boycotts to have real impact: emotion and commitment.

“Boycott success usually depends on how strongly people feel about an issue and whether it is easy to participate,” Daniel Diermeier, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said.

He added that boycotts are rarely effective in accomplishing their goals but can damage the economy and eventually lead to change when sustained over a long period of time.

Local boycotts and divestment from South Africa’s racist, apartheid government played an important role in the downfall of the system, but that was after a number of years.

Motivated by the December 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, residents and protesters in the American city of Montgomery, Alabama, began a 13-month boycott of the public transportation system.

Finally, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

While the political circumstances in Cambodia are vastly different, experts say the equation for an effective boycott is clear.

“The authorities know that it takes a great amount of resources to go on strike, and obviously that it means lost wages, resources that the CNRP doesn’t have or will eventually run out of,” Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said.

For now, the CNRP is sticking to the idea of a one-day, nationwide strike – though a date has yet to be set – and party officials are confident that support will be widespread.

It isn’t just young people who have been supporting the campaign against years of CPP rule, CNRP whip Son Chhay said.

There were “the shop owners, vendors at the market, motodops, tuk-tuk drivers – all kinds of people,” said Chhay, who remained optimistic that local businesses would forgo a day’s income for the greater goal.

Analysts say the one soft spot may be the garment sector, Cambodia’s largest export industry.

Focusing on a major industry has inflicted damage elsewhere. In the US, legislators in the state of Arizona passed controversial immigration laws in 2010. The unpopular decision triggered a campaign that cost the state’s conference and hotel industry $140 million in lost revenue as businesses chose to hold events elsewhere, according to the Center for American Progress.

A US federal court later repealed parts of the law.

Kong Athit at the Cambodian Labour Confederation, whose organisation represents 186 unions across six sectors, estimates that 40 to 50 per cent of the unions’ 80,000 workers would join the strike.

There could be some private sector pressure applied “if the garment workers come out en masse”, said Srey Chanty, president of the Cambodian Economic Association.

Chanty added that, in general, strikes can undermine the image of a government abroad, but the longer-term impact is less assured.

“In terms of the threat to overall economic development, I don’t think it is a real threat,” he said.

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