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Shifting out of neutral?

People listen to a union leader’s speech at the National Assembly on Friday as part of a Labour Day march
People listen to a union leader’s speech at the National Assembly on Friday as part of a Labour Day march. Rong Chhun has been criticised for his involvement in the Labour Day marches while holding a seat on the NEC. Sreng Meng Srun

Shifting out of neutral?

The country’s official election body has said it will “take action” against one of its recently appointed members, former union leader Rong Chhun, if he continues to attend rallies with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders.

National Election Committee President Sik Bun Hok said yesterday that the NEC was due to meet today to discuss Chhun’s attendance at Labour Day marches through Phnom Penh on Friday.

“When we work in the NEC we cannot carry on as we did when we worked in NGOs or government,” Bun Hok said. “We are in a different position. If we are not neutral, how can we maintain our independence?”

Thousands took to the streets of the capital on Friday to air their concerns over low pay, poor working conditions and union busting.

Workers petitioned the National Assembly for a minimum wage of $177, the scrapping of short-term contracts, the dropping of charges against labour activists and justice for the families of workers killed by security forces in January 2014.

The NEC meeting today over Chhun’s attendance at the marches came after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party censured the former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association in a statement over the weekend.

Suos Yara, the CPP spokesman who penned the strongly worded letter, said that NEC members could not be politically active and must maintain neutrality to be able to fulfil its duties.

“At the march of the unions we saw a very surprising sight, the presence of His Excellency Rong Chhun, a new member of the NEC, with CNRP lawmakers,” the statement read.

“Does this attendance of [Chhun] mean that he has a conflict of interest or not, as he is now an NEC member?”

After being appointed to the position last month, Chhun said he was “sharpening his spurs” for a possible showdown with the leaders of the political parties. “If the leaders are not happy, they can propose to withdraw my candidature,” he said at the time.

Speaking yesterday, Chhun said while he must respect the law governing the functioning of the NEC, he did not believe his attendance at Friday’s rallies broke the rules.

“This day was not a demonstration, but an international day. Whether I stop or not depends on the law. If I’m banned by the law I will stop. If I’m allowed I will continue,” he said. “The law does not ban us from celebrating national or international festivals.”

He added that he did not make any speeches or statements at the rallies, which were organised by a number of labour unions.

“If civil society organises [an event] and I join there is nothing wrong with that. We must follow the law.”

Chhun was selected as one of four opposition-appointed NEC members. Four were also chosen by the CPP, while former election watchdog Hang Puthea was appointed as a ninth, “neutral” member after the two parties reached a consensus following months of closed-door negotiations.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, said he supported Chhun’s right to attend the May Day marches, adding that these activities were not banned by the NEC law.

“People are encouraged to join in on days like these. Not only the NEC members, but the king and heads of other institutions should join, too. There is no discrimination,” Panha said.

“There’s no problem with involvement in social movements. Don’t interpret this as politics. If you make this interpretation it damages the atmosphere.”

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