A demonstrator is detained by police on May 1 after a tense standoff between labor union members and police wielding electric batons in Stung Meanchey district. Story,
p a short flight of stairs, through a room of eager activists
and beneath a portrait of assassinated union leader Chea Vichea, is the small office
of Chea Mony, 47, president of the 71,000-member Free Trade Union (FTU) and Vichea's
brother. He sits at his desk fingering a dog-eared, paperback copy of the Cambodian
If Mony is the face of the labor movement in Cambodia today, it is not a happy one.
On May 1, just 24 hours before meeting with the Post, Mony was allegedly arrested
and prevented from leading a march to the National Assembly to demand better working
conditions. May Day, or International Workers' Day, is held each year in commemoration
of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago - a seminal protest that led to the eight-hour
work day in the US.
But Mony, father of two and a former teacher originally from Kandal province, is
more focused on the future than the past. He explains that recently his union, representing
mostly garment factory workers, has seen sharp increases in enrollment for rubber
plantation workers, shrimp industry employees, hospital workers, market vendors and
But he says he's skeptical about the government's acceptance of organized labor and
says violence is a daily threat.
He spoke to Charles McDermid and Sam Rith about freedom, justice and
Post: How would you describe the events of May Day as a whole?
What makes it so disappointing is the police involvement. They did not allow the
workers and I any freedom. May 1 is International Labor Day, a day when unions celebrate.
But our celebration did not go smoothly because the government didn't want it to.
Police didn't want members to participate. When police arrested me it was meant to
intimidate the workers. It's also related to corruption. One of the worker demands
was lower gas prices; the government is hiding the facts about this issue.
Post: How were you treated by the police?
I was held for 2 hours and 5 minutes. Police arrested me around 9am and I was put
in a car. I was taken to the Phnom Penh police station, then Russeo Keo police station
and then moved to Russeo Keo district hall. A policeman in civilian clothes, and
the governor of Russeo Keo and Sun Rindy, [deputy director of the cabinet of municipality
of Phnom Penh], questioned me. They were trying to restrict the places for us to
meet with workers. We wanted to gather with workers in front of the National Assembly,
but they wanted us to meet in front of the of the FTU office where there isn't enough
room. We decided to march to the newsstand where they shot my brother. I told them
what they did is abusive and unconstitutional. They violated Article 41of the Constitution.
Police shot in the air to intimidate workers in Meanchey district. The government
does not want to have unions.
Post: Did you know before May 1 that the government would interfere with the labor
Yes, I knew before May 1. There are two groups of unions: government unions and non-government
unions. Only CPP-aligned unions were encouraged to celebrate.
Post: What do you mean when you say "government unions?"
These are the unions that the government created. They are close to the government
and receive salaries from them. They have more freedom than we do.
Post: Are you free to organize and run your union?
We are allowed, but we are not free. On some points they allow workers and unions
to operate, on others they do not. They don't allow us to hold meetings, strikes
or demonstrations. Some union members are threatened with death.
Post: Does the labor movement in Cambodia have any political power?
Today our unions do not have influence in the government; in other countries they
do. If the FTU was given the right to gather, we would have influence.
Post: Do you think an influential Labor Party could be formed in Cambodia, like
in some European countries?
In the law we have the right, but I don't want to begin one. If other union leaders
want to form a labor party they can.
Post: Do you fear assassination?
Yes. In fact, I am very worried about assassination of labor leaders and rights activists.
Today, at 5:30am, seven members of a government union beat up one of my colleagues.
He is now in the hospital.
Post: Is Cambodia a free country?
It's not free at all. And we don't have the freedom or rights we need to make the
Post: Do you have any new information on the assassination of Chea Vichea?
I don't have more information. The police know who the killers are. This is related
to the highest ranks of government. We know Cambodia has no independent court. The
police do what powerful people tell them to do, and the courts are not independent.
Post: Do you think your brother's killer will ever be brought to justice?