The arrests and temporary detainment of two union activists for passing out pamphlets yesterday has union supporters and a prominent lawyer questioning whether a law even exists that would justify the police action.
Russei Keo district police arrested Yin Sareoun, secretary general of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and Choub Nith, an accountant with the union, as they passed out flyers supporting a worker boycott on overtime work in front of Evergreen Apparel (Cambodia) Co Ltd.
“When my accountant and I were passing out leaflets to Evergreen workers, a few policemen came and grabbed my bag and motorcycle key without saying anything to us,” Sareoun told the Post yesterday. “After that, they took us to their office for questioning and released us after we agreed to thumbprint a document” about an hour later.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche yesterday said the arrests were legitimate, because the law requires people to get permission from the government before handing out any kind of flyer to the public.
Sareoun and Nith’s arrests yesterday serve as an example of the consequences people who break this law will face, Dimanche said.
“Anyone who illegally distributes leaflets will face detainment by authorities,” Dimanche told the Post yesterday. “Our authorities will arrest them again if they hand out leaflets without a letter of permission.”
The flyers Sareoun and Nith handed out encouraged workers to participate in an attempted industry-wide boycott of overtime work, in protest at the government’s refusal to set the garment sector’s 2014 minimum wage at $160 per month and release 21 detainees arrested at demonstrations supporting a garment worker strike early last month.
A law requiring people to receive government approval before handing out free literature sounded far-fetched to Sok Sam Oeun, an attorney and president of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“I don’t think there is such a law,” Sam Oeun said after hearing of the arrests. “I think that giving a pamphlet like that, I think that is just part of freedom.”
Police can intervene if pamphlets are passed out to incite people to take action against the government, Sam Oeun said. But such action is reserved for cases in which the literature suggests violent action toward police and government officials.
The arrests yesterday also made little sense to Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labour program, who has attended and moderated meetings of union groups supporting the boycott.
“What they claim is just groundless,” said Tola, who wondered if people passing out flyers advertising bars and restaurants are required to seek permission from the government. “I think the main purpose is for the authorities to restrict, to intimidate the group of unions” supporting the boycott.
Tola added that military police presence inside garment factories this week is a ploy to bully workers into working overtime, rather than leave after their eight-hour shifts.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito yesterday confirmed military police presence inside factories, but said it was a security measure.