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Women's day forum blocked

A show of force by authorities today at Freedom Park suppressed a planned public forum on garment industry issues, causing union leaders to cancel the event timed to International Women’s Day.

The leaders of 18 union confederations had planned to discuss issues including the continued push for a $160 minimum monthly wage and the release of 21 activists and workers detained during a January crackdown - despite City Hall and the Ministry of Interior forbidding the gathering in decisions earlier this week.

“I’m disappointed that the government didn’t allow it and that the authorities blocked Freedom Park,” Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said after the incident. “Freedom Park [should allow] for freedom of the workers.”

As early as 7am police manned barricades blocking off the park and side streets leading there. By 8am, black-helmeted Daun Penh district security guards wielding batons stormed through a crowd of about 50 gathered near the blockade, blowing whistles, shouting and herding the group toward the Naga Bridge.

The scene remained tense, as the growing group of activists –which reached about 500 at its height – shouted at security guards, who continued holding demonstrators at the bridge, until about 10am, when union supporters drove security guards back, taking up position across from Freedom Park.

During a brief press conference, several union leaders condemned today’s police action and the earlier decision to forbid the meeting as oppressive toward workers.

“This is an illegal action of the government authorities,” Thorn said at the conference. “The government banned the forum… but they have not provided any solution.”

Ken Chhenglang, vice president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, said the forum could have been an opportunity to open a dialogue between government and unions.

“I think if the government allowed us to have a public forum here, we could provide a lot of provide a lot of information to workers,” said Chhenglang, who pointed out that government officials including Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng were invited to participate in the forum.

Had government officials allowed the event and participated, Chhenglang said, a nationwide stay-at-home strike planned to begin Wednesday, could have been averted.

Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy also briefly attended the gathering across Freedom Park to much fanfare, throwing his support behind workers.

“Today is International Women’s Day, and most garment workers are women,” Rainsy said. “They demand a minimum wage of $160 and the release of those 21 men, and I strongly support those objectives.”

Words by Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Sean Teehan

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