Prime Minister Hun Sen has told the “foreigners” who he said are behind longstanding protests in Cambodia to cease and desist, saying they are merely mercenary demonstrations.

Hun Sen made the warning on May 1, as he marked the 137th anniversary of International Labour Day while presiding over the groundbreaking ceremony of a new container terminal at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port in Preah Sihanouk province.

“How can it be that a group of more than 100 protesters have been demonstrating for more than two years? There were initially more than 300, but now the number has dwindled to the remaining hundred,” he said in apparent reference to the longstanding protest that began in late 2021 by laid-off employees of NagaWorld integrated casino resort in Phnom Penh.

“The government is aware as to where they receive funding for the ongoing protest. Getting paid to demonstrate is not a matter of respect for workers’ rights, but something far more sinister.

“During the Covid-19 crisis, many factories and businesses in the world were either shut down or forced to lay off workers, but this is not the case in Cambodia. In our country, it seems peculiar that the number of protesters who went on strike demanding their reinstatement dropped to just a hundred and the protest still drags on. Those who quit the protest were paid appropriate compensation. Given that the ones who remain were simply workers, how have they been supporting themselves for all this time?” he asked rhetorically.

He said the foreigners who are behind the protest should leave and refrain from internationalising an internal demonstration, warning them not to escalate the affair beyond what had actually occurred.

“Let the foreign friends who provide them with funding withdraw and stop trying to provoke international sympathy. I heard from one of the protesters who said: ‘Uncle, if I do not march on May 1, they will cut off my money’.

“I am not talking about Japan. It is clear that some unions in Cambodia are foreign-funded. That is one thing, but this goes too far,” he said at the ceremony, in the presence of Japan’s ambassador to Cambodia.

NagaWorld laid off thousands of employees at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. In its January 2022 statement, the casino resort cited global economic downturn and its losses of $77 million.

The statement said the $77 million in losses was just a temporary evaluation for the first half of 2020 and the total figure could be higher and that the unfavourable economic situation forced the company to start reducing its expenses – including payroll – for the sake of the company and its shareholders.

Among the measures that the company said it had undertaken to mitigate the financial losses was a reduction in manpower, especially those staff members whose positions had become redundant or unproductive without any customers present.

However, about 360 workers out of the 1,329 affected by the layoff rejected ending their contracts through the mutual termination agreement and began striking, with the protest leading to several arrests.

Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld, has been charged and remanded in custody by the court, while about 100 workers are still protesting for the return of their jobs and the release of their leader.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said that overseas funds are generally used to provide training and capacity building, which is not a bad thing, as ultimately the funding is used to support the rights and freedoms of workers who are legally protesting.

According to a March statement by the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, the NagaWorld labour dispute remains unresolved, with union representatives insisting on a return to work, and the company’s representatives rejecting their demands.