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Protest data for city don’t add up

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Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong speaks City Hall’s annual meeting yesterday. Photo supplied

Protest data for city don’t add up

City Hall yesterday reported a threefold increase in the number of strikes and protests across Phnom Penh, largely due to garment worker protests, though the city’s numbers failed to match up with recent government figures and, in certain instances, their own.

A report released during the city government’s annual meeting yesterday identified 1,326 protests and strikes last year, a considerable jump from 443 in 2015. It added that most incidents had the backing of political parties, NGOs and trade unions.

But while the document cites 1,326 overall incidents, a breakdown by category deeper in the report tallies nearly 1,600: 966 garment worker protests, 359 political protests, 52 by NGOs and 221 by groups of citizens, likely land disputants.

Just last week, the Ministry of Labour said there were 220 cases of worker-related strikes and protests in the entire country, less than a quarter of those cited by City Hall.

Municipality spokesman Met Measpheakdey yesterday said he was unable to clarify the discrepancies in the statistics, nor was he able to offer a reason for the massive uptick in incidents.

“I do not have the number in my hand right now and need time to review it,” he said.

In declaring most of these activities anti-government, the report specifically singled out the civil society-launched “Black Monday” protests, which it characterised as an attempt to cause a “colour revolution.”

Government and military officials have frequently used the threat of a colour revolution – a reference to largely non-violent popular movements that have toppled regimes in Eastern Europe – when referring to public demonstrations of dissent.

Black Monday was an effort by NGOs and civil society to push for the release of five jailed current and former human rights workers who were arrested last year in relation to a sex scandal swirling around opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha.

Measpheakdey yesterday said many protests backed by NGOs and political parties had the express aim of creating trouble for the local government and were often fomented by external groups.

“Some cases, we see that if the protesters just want a solution for their problem, it is easy to deal with,” he said. “With protests that are politically motivated, they [protesters] seem not to want a solution but something else.”

Labour advocate Moeun Tola said it was difficult to verify the authenticity of City Hall’s tally of garment worker-related protests, given the lack of transparency in the data gathering. “It is never consistent. [The discrepancy] is not surprising because different ministries and different departments in the same ministry report different figures,” he said.

Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, meanwhile, rejected the idea that NGOs were behind the protests, saying that NGOs were assisting people within the confines of the law and largely acting as monitors when visible at protests themselves.

“We dare not to do anything more than this, otherwise we will break our duty and be penalised,” he said. “But sometimes the government confuses us with [protesters] and sees us as part of the group opposing them.”

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