In a closed-door meeting with garment industry union leaders on Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered his audience to ensure that factory workers don’t organise political protests or associate with the remnants of the now-dissolved opposition party.
While no audio from the speech was released as of Sunday evening, two union leaders – including one with strong ties to the government – relayed the contents of the speech to The Post.
“He said all of us must cooperate together and don’t participate with [the opposition] and don’t believe their propaganda,” said one union leader who requested anonymity to discuss the private remarks.
For Prime Minister Hun Sen, memories of workers in the streets following the national elections in 2013 and 2014 may be fresh, with the premier allegedly blaming the “carelessness” of the unions for those demonstrations, which were ultimately quelled when security forces fired on protesters, killing five. “He is afraid workers will go do demonstrations,” the source said.
The unionist also said Hun Sen directly warned Cambodian Labour Confederation head Ath Thorn and former unionist Rong Chhun, both frequent government critics.
Thorn on Sunday said the current political climate has limited his advocacy work.
“The unions have to be very careful as well to not get in trouble … It’s difficult to do any activities to help workers,” he said.
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan confirmed after the meeting that the remarks reflect the government’s stance, saying it is necessary to prevent workers from colluding with “the rebel group” to cause “chaos” – a reference the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, a nonviolent organisation created after the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party by its former leader, Sam Rainsy, ostensibly to call for demonstrations.
Some 800,000 strong, garment factory workers are a crucial voting bloc for both the ruling party and opposition. Following the disputed 2013 elections, opposition protests against the election results coincided with nationwide garment worker protests over the sector’s minimum wage.
Heak Borey, president of the government-aligned Cambodian Workers Labour Confederation Union, confirmed that Hun Sen warned the audience about the dangers of instability.
“He is the country leader, so he has the responsibility to [stop] anybody who urges and incites chaos,” Borey said, claiming that the 2013 protests were a “criminal movement”.
A third union leader, who requested anonymity out of security concerns and who did not attend Sunday’s gathering, claimed he was ordered after the CNRP’s dissolution not to protest and was pressured into defecting to the ruling party.
“After I defected to the CPP union alliance, I was not pressured and monitored by authorities [anymore],” he said.
However, he feels that in doing so he has given up his ability to help workers fight injustice.
“All the strike and protest activities were warned against; if I continue to do so it will show that I betray and upset the leader and party . . . Although there is no opposition party, they are angry with the CPP who do not help them, but harm them,” he said, in reference to workers and their families.
The ruling party, and Hun Sen himself, has been reaching out to workers in a months-long charm offensive, however, promising a higher minimum wage and benefits such as health care access and $100 bonuses for new mothers.
Political analyst Meas Nee said Hun Sen is particularly wary of the garment industry labour force after the last round of protests, keeping a “close watch” on the sector while simultaneously pressuring and charming the group.
In an email on Sunday, Rainsy said the government’s order to unions to prevent their members from voicing dissent violates Cambodians’ protected freedoms of association, opinion and expression.
“Hun Sen doesn’t seem to understand yet that nobody can dictate their choices to the people, who determine their preferences in their minds and hearts,” he wrote.
The prime minister made a short post on his Facebook page after the meeting, writing that he appealed to workers to “maintain peace” while also urging them to vote for the ruling party.