UN Rights Envoy to Visit Cambodia in Wake of Deadly Crackdown

2014-01-08
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U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi at a lecture to university students in Phnom Penh on May 21, 2013.
RFA

The U.N.’s human rights monitor for Cambodia is set to visit the country next week in the wake of a violent crackdown by security forces on workers’ strikes and opposition protests which the government has stoutly defended in the face of criticism from the world body.

The announcement of Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi’s trip came as the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) threatened to restart mass protests that have been halted since the bloody crackdown last week.

Police on Friday shot dead at least four people during a strike by garment factory workers in the outskirts of Phnom Penh and the next day, security forces violently dispersed supporters of the CNRP from Freedom Park in the capital.

The CNRP had been holding daily protests at the park calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign and hold new elections following July polls which had been tainted by allegations of fraud and other irregularities.

The opposition protests that drew tens of thousands to the streets have posed a major challenge to the government alongside strikes by garment and footwear workers demanding a higher minimum salary.

Subedi’s visit will be his first since before the July elections, in which Hun Sen was declared victor by the government-appointed National Election Committee despite CNRP’s calls for an independent probe into fraud and other charges which the party said had robbed it of a win.

According to a statement by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the six-day fact-finding mission which begins Sunday is part of an ongoing program of monitoring progress on human rights in the country.

“My upcoming mission is part of my ongoing assessment of the situation of human rights in Cambodia,” Subedi said, according to the statement.

During the visit he is expected to meet with Hun Sen and other members of the government as well as human rights defenders and representatives from civil society organizations, it said.

The announcement followed remarks by OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville Tuesday expressing “deep alarm” at the “disproportionate use of force” by law enforcement officials in the crackdown and raising concerns about 23 people who had been arrested.

Cambodia’s foreign minister Hor Namhong defended the government’s actions against demonstrators at a press conference on Wednesday, telling reporters it was protesters who had broken the law.

"The demonstrations abused the law," he said, according to Reuters news agency.

"The public generally applauds the decision by the government to halt the violent demonstrations," he said, insisting that the government had exercised restraint for months.

The Ministry of Interior had also issued a ban on all demonstrations in Phnom Penh “until public order and security is restored.”

Meanwhile, the authorities allowed family members and physicians to meet for the first time Wednesday with 23 protesters arrested in the crackdown, following concerns raised by rights groups earlier this week about their whereabouts.

The 23, including garment workers and activists, have been accused of stirring up the violence and causing damage to property.

Leaders of the CNRP, which supported the garment worker strikes, are also facing charges, with party president Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha scheduled to appear in court next week for “inciting unrest.”

CNRP protests

The CNRP has said it will restart its protests before the end of the month, announcing plans for Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to tour three provinces this week to drum up support for the rallies.

CNRP leaders also hope to meet with Subedi during his visit to discuss last week’s violence, according to a party spokesman.

Party leaders did not give a date for when their protests will resume, with Kem Sokha indicating it could be done later in the month.

“We can’t delay until this end of this month,” he told RFA.

“Freedom Park is where we express our views. We hope that late this month there will be a gathering,” he said.

In the meantime, he and Sam Rainsy will travel to Battambang, Siem Reap, and Banteay Meanchey from Friday through Sunday, Kem Sokha said.  

“We will be meeting our supporters and villagers to inform them about our stance because some of them haven’t received any updated information.”  

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party hoped that Subedi’s presence in the country next week would help ease tensions.

“We will inform him about the recent brutal crackdown by armed forces under the CPP’s control in which many people were killed and arrested. This is a serious human rights violation,” he said.

“We will discuss about election reforms and reelection which is the only peaceful solution to avoiding a political crisis,” he said.

As hundreds of shuttered factories reopened and garment workers returned to work this week, teachers in 20 schools across the country have started a strike to demand higher pay.

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Striking Cambodian teachers display signs calling for higher salaries, Jan. 8, 2014.

Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) president Rong Chhun, who also leads an umbrella organization representing striking factory workers, said some 700 teachers were taking part in the strikes, gathering outside the schools and displaying banners calling for higher wages.

“We request the government and the ministry of education pay attention to provide solutions to the teachers’ demands,” said Rong Chhun, who is head of the umbrella Cambodian Confederation of Unions.

Teachers told RFA they had faced threats from school principals warning them they would be arrested if they continued with their strike.

The strikers are demanding salaries of 1 million riel (U.S. $250) per month—more than three times that of the average primary school instructor.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.