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Doth he protest too much?

Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with members of the public
Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with members of the public during the inaugural ceremony of Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Doth he protest too much?

Amid the gleaming interiors and high-end shops of Phnom Penh’s newly opened Aeon mall, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday saw something beyond the obvious leap forward for the Kingdom’s retail sector – the potential for chaos.

As he officially inaugurated the shopping centre at a ceremony attended by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the premier said that if Cambodia did not have peace and stability, foreign investment like that behind the mall would vanish.

Japan’s Aeon Group has invested more than $200 million in the project, which is providing jobs to more than 2,500 Cambodians. Hun Sen warned that strikes for higher wages would paralyse business.

“Please, all youths, try to work hard for the success of the mall. If Aeon does not make profits, the mall bosses will not increase your salaries. There is no need to protest to destroy the mall,” he said. “Don’t become good at protesting or create any protests that will make Aeon shut down.”

In an apparent reference to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which the premier has previously accused of inciting garment workers to protest earlier this year, Hun Sen said that anyone who wanted to create instability in Cambodia was “a criminal”.

“Will anyone go to shop at Aeon Mall if the country is war-torn or when there is anarchy on the streets of the capital? There will be no one. Only peace and national reconciliation as well as political stability are the factors that serve the development of the country.”

Employees wait at the end of an aisle for customers during the inauguration of Aeon Mall
Employees wait at the end of an aisle for customers during the inauguration of Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh yesterday. Hong Menea

The premier also used his distinguished Japanese guest, here on a three-day visit, to drive home the point about the consequences of losing foreign investment.

“Don’t play such things. If Mr Kishida returns back home, he will not die. But our 2,500 employees will die from losing their jobs. That’s the way it is,” he said.

Although the mall may not immediately spring to mind as a likely place of protest, the premier’s speech could end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, said opposition party whip Son Chhay.

“By mentioning this, it’s like he is inviting people to protest at the mall. It’s very stupid to do,” he said.“The prime minister should understand that he is not running a communist state.

“Cambodia is supposed to be a liberal democratic country, and in a democratic country freedom of expression must be recognised.”

Ath Thorn, head of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, which represents a number of unions, also was quick to take umbrage with the premier’s warning.

“Staff working at Aeon are workers, so they have every right to nonviolently strike and protest based on the law if their bosses violate or exploit their benefits,” he said.

Thorn added that unionists would soon visit the mall to educate staff about their rights.

A store saleswoman at the mall who requested anonymity said she was receiving $120 a month and a $20 gasoline allowance on a probationary contract. She said workers were earning an additional $1 for each overtime hour worked.

“It’s too early to say anything about the working conditions, but it’s OK at present,” she said.

Social and political analyst Kem Ley said that by raising the issue of protests at the mall opening, the premier was making it clear the government is still scared of a protest movement taking off in the Kingdom.

“He’s scared. Why? Because many people right now [are willing to protest], not just land rights activists or factory workers but a new movement from all corners of society,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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