On the same day 18 union federations made their final decision to move forward with a labour rights forum in Freedom Park on Saturday, thousands of police officials from several departments gathered in Olympic Stadium for a training session.
“Plans for a demonstration, such as the one on March 8, is nothing new for us; we have faced similar challenges many times already,” said Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito, who insisted yesterday’s training session was unrelated to the planned forum. “We train to strengthen our capacity.”
On Saturday, union groups plan to gather at Freedom Park to both celebrate International Women’s Day and discuss pressing issues in the garment industry. Following last week’s boycott of overtime in which some garment workers took part, the forum is the last action before a planned stay-at-home strike, which is scheduled to begin on March 12 and last until at least March 19.
Discussion at the forum will focus heavily on garment workers’ demands for a minimum monthly wage of $160 and the release of 21 activists and workers jailed since January crackdowns.
Despite City Hall forbidding the gathering, unions estimate that between 10,000 and 30,000 people will descend on Freedom Park at 8am on Saturday for what they term a dialogue, not a demonstration, said Sun Lyhov of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU).
“We must continue our plan even if police try to block us, because it is a peaceful and non-violent assembly,” Lyhov said. “If local authorities block us, we will not react; we will just stand face to face with them.”
Authorities obstructing the forum would not benefit anyone, Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), said yesterday after being informed of the police training session that afternoon.
The union federations invited government officials including Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng and Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon, as well as opposition leader Sam Rainsy, to ensure an open exchange of ideas, Tola said.
“There’s no point in the government stopping the people from organising the public forum,” Tola said. “The forum will reflect what the government [and people] want to do.”
In a statement released yesterday, UN special rapporteur for Cambodia Surya Subedi weighed in on City Hall’s refusal to allow the forum, and encouraged officials to follow Cambodian law.
“I reiterate my call on the Cambodian authorities at all levels to judiciously respect … the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution,” he said.
But City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche yesterday said the forum’s purposes are more nefarious than organisers claim.
“Their public gathering is about incitement,” he said.