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After blockade, unions plot next move

Municipal security personnel sit in the shade of a tree in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park
Municipal security personnel sit in the shade of a tree in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday while members of the public congregate along a crowd-control barricade. Heng Chivoan

After blockade, unions plot next move

Union federations today will finalise their strategy for a stay-at-home strike scheduled to start on Wednesday, amid recent government and police suppression of union activity.

Unions will first meet individually to discuss whether they are willing to continue striking past the scheduled March 19 ending and whether the strike should consist only of workers staying home or involve workers showing up to factories but not performing their duties, said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.

Leaders of the 18 union federations supporting the strike will then meet later today and agree on a definite plan.

“We have discussed among the 18 trade union [leaders], now we are … in the process of making sure with the workers,” Thorn said yesterday.

If unions stick to their schedule, the strike will start only days after authorities manned barricades around Freedom Park on Saturday, thwarting plans to hold an International Women’s Day forum, at which they planned to discuss the minimum wage and the continued detention of 21 activists and workers arrested at January demonstrations, among other garment industry issues.

By 7am on Saturday, municipal police and helmeted Daun Penh security guards stood watch in front of Freedom Park and side streets leading there. An hour later, the baton-wielding security guards herded the group of about 50 people gathered across the street from the Freedom Park blockade, blowing whistles and shouting at people while driving them back to the Naga Bridge.

After the crowd grew to about 500, union supporters drove security guards back behind the barricades at Freedom Park.

“For right now, I’m very hesitant to call it ‘Freedom Park’,” Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said yesterday.

Authorities’ actions on Saturday fell in line with decisions by City Hall and the Ministry of Interior last week to forbid the forum – in which government officials including Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng were invited to participate – citing concerns about disturbance of public order.

Prime Minister Hun Sen had lifted a ban on public demonstrations imposed in early January the week before the forum’s banning.

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Friday announced that about 3,100 police officers would receive bonuses of 70,000 riel ($17.50) – a total expenditure of $54,250 – with more rewards likely in the future, in gratitude of authorities’ cracking down of public demonstrations.

“There will be more bonuses,” Kheng said. “It is a little money for you, but it is an act to thank all of you for suppressing protests.”

Kheng also claimed in his Friday speech that union federations planned on holding demonstrations during their strike this week.

Tola and Thorn both denied any intention to hold any kind of demonstration associated with the strike, and stated confusion as to where Kheng received such information.

“The government should change their local spies to be more professional [ones], because they are providing the wrong information,” Tola said. “I don’t know if he receives the wrong information, or he just manipulates [it].”

Tola added that he believes the police bonuses encouraged brutality toward demonstrators.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak yesterday declined to comment on Kheng’s claim that unions planned demonstrations this week.

Sopheak defended the bonuses for police, who are often frustrated by protests.

“Generally, the police are bored with the people holding demonstration and strikes, and sometimes they feel angry with the protesters,” Sopheak said. “If the protests did not occur, then police wouldn’t act violently toward [protesters].”

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