Before he was arrested in January, Vorn Pov and the union he created were not widely known outside of activist circles.
But when he emerged from Phnom Penh’s CC1 prison on Friday, he walked away as one of the highest-profile unionists in the country, and a minor celebrity.
According to Pov, his Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) has recruited more than 1,000 new members since he was beaten and dragged away by soldiers outside the Yakjin garment factory amid worker protests on January 3.
That his group has since burgeoned in popularity is not surprising. The 23 protesters and activists who were imprisoned during January’s demonstrations, and finally released on Friday with suspended sentences, became a cause célèbre, drawing widespread attention from local and global unions, rights groups, brands, embassies and media.
At the centre of the firestorm surrounding the group was Pov, who underwent surgery late last year and was said to be suffering from serious health problems after the beating.
“A lot of people are paying attention to my union now, because they know that I was unjustly put behind bars,” Pov, who launched IDEA in 2005 to represent informal workers ranging from tuk-tuk drivers to recyclables collectors and now has more than 10,000 members, said yesterday.
“A lot of people want to meet me now, especially when I go down to the market to thank the vendors who supported me while I was detained in prison. They want to know me, and they say they are proud of me because what I have done is not personal. I did it for the workers and society.
“I think the reason I became the symbol of the 23 is because I had done a lot of work in the past to help workers and moto taxi drivers. So when I was arrested … they thought about me first.”
Hin Phearun, 30, has driven a tuk-tuk for seven years but says he only joined IDEA after Pov was sent to prison.
“I never thought to join Vorn Pov’s union before. But after he was imprisoned, I know him and I know he fights for workers. So last month, we all went to his association to become members,” he says, gesturing to a group of seven other motodops and tuk-tuk drivers who work on the same Tonle Bassac commune street corner.
“Now we are all employees of Vorn Pov. He is the leader and we are the members.”
Pov has long been a well-known local activist but has gained a much higher profile since his arrest, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour rights program at the Community Legal Education Center.
“I think it’s true [that average Cambodians are now more likely to know his name], because more and more people have approached me and asked me about him after he was arrested, especially our international friends and Cambodians that live abroad.”
On Sunday, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president Kem Sokha said that he would invite Pov to the US to meet with Khmer communities living there.
Tola compared Pov to Boueng Kak land activist Yorm Bopha, whose profile skyrocketed after she was convicted of aggravated violence in 2012 in a case widely believed to be linked to her political activism.
According to Human Rights Watch, based on testimony from members of the security forces, Pov is “on a blacklist of social activists, journalists, and human rights defenders [that] the security forces have been compiling as possible targets for prosecution and imprisonment since the second half of 2013”.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday rejected that allegation in no uncertain terms.
“Whoever [thinks] he is on a blacklist of the government can submit [a complaint] to the court, because they don’t allow anyone to do like that. It’s against citizens’ rights. Whoever is saying that is sort of defaming the government. We have no such thing like that, it’s nonsense,” he said.
“We understand what is wrong and we want to fix the problem. We will go to the source of the problem – the [minimum wage pay] raise..… Getting rid of one person wouldn’t mean you get rid of the problem.”
Chhay Chhunly, head of the human rights defenders project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that while Pov had already been subject to threats before his arrest, he could now be better protected.
“Having a higher profile among the international community and the media since his arrest might actually make him safer. It means that if the government threatens you or arrests you, there will be a bigger reaction and more pressure,” she said.
But for IDEA members like tuk-tuk driver Ly Sovan, Pov’s newfound fame will mean little if their lot doesn’t improve.
“I don’t care about his reputation or whether he is famous or not. It’s about moto drivers and tuk-tuk drivers benefiting.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA