As the opposition prepares to stage mass demonstrations across the country, major independent unions – a key component of protests that followed the contested 2013 election – yesterday expressed reluctance to support a call to mobilise for protests they called “political” and not in their interests.
On Monday, the CNRP announced plans to hold mass, non-violent protests in response to the “unjust” use of the court system against its senior leadership and activists, with the party saying it hoped to get “as many as possible” on the streets.
But union leaders appear determined to sit this one out.
“It is a political protest, so we will not take part,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union. “Workers may take part as per their rights, but the union will not take part.”
Thorn acknowledged that in 2013, the CNRP’s post-election protests had merged with worker demonstrations for better wages, but said that would not happen this time around.
In 2013, following the CNRP’s boycott of the National Assembly and subsequent peaceful gatherings in Phnom Penh, party president Sam Rainsy had used his longstanding connections to the labour movement to encourage workers to join their cause to the CNRP.
However, two weeks after those overtures, violent clashes between security forces and unions at Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard led to the shooting deaths of five workers when authorities opened fire on protesters. A day later, they violently dispersed CNRP supporters at Freedom Park.
“In the previous protest, it was the union who organised it, but politicians gained from those protests,” said Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina. “Even if the CNRP includes wage talks in their protest, I think it is just to gain political mileage.”
Unions are currently engaged in discussions with the government and employer representatives to set next year’s minimum wage, with Far Sally, head of the National Coalition of Trade Unions, saying that was where he intends the focus of the workers he represents to remain.
However, Chea Mony, former president of the Free Trade Union, said he would “one hundred per cent take part in the CNRP protest”.
He was backed up by Mam Seng Hak, deputy president of the FTU. “Personally, I encourage [workers] to take part so as to ensure respect of the law. The court, as we see, isn’t providing justice,” Seng Hak said.
Rainsy yesterday said that unions and workers were free to decide for themselves if they wanted to “join hands with democratic forces also fighting for social justice”, a sentiment echoed by CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.
“Workers are Cambodians and they can also participate to find a solution,” Sovann said. “This is a problem for the whole country.”