NGOs call for release of prominent NagaWorld union leader

Authorities arrested Chhim Sithar as she returned from a labor union conference in Australia.
By RFA Khmer
2022.11.29
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NGOs call for release of prominent NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar, leader of the NagaWorld casino union, speaks at a strike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Dec. 21, 2021.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights/Handout via Reuters

UPDATED at 11:56 A.M. ET on 2022-11-30

Nearly 70 Cambodian civil society organizations have called for the immediate release of a prominent labor union leader arrested three days ago for allegedly violating bail conditions from a prior arrest. 

Authorities arrested Chhim Sithar, a leader of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of the NagaWorld casino complex, at Phnom Penh International Airport on Saturday, for violating bail conditions that allegedly prohibited her from traveling overseas.

She was returning from the International Trade Union Confederation World Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

“We call for her immediate and unconditional release from prison and an end to the judicial harassment of the union’s leader and members,” said a statement issued by the organizations on Monday.

Police first arrested Chhim Sithar in December 2021 on charges of inciting social chaos for leading a massive strike at the NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex, one of the world’s most profitable gambling centers, in the center of Phnom Penh.

Thousands of NagaWorld employees walked off their jobs in mid-December 2021, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired from the casino, which is owned by Malaysian billionaire Tan Sri Chen Lip Keong. 

At the time, Cambodian authorities said the strike was illegal and alleged that foreign donor countries supported it as a plot to topple the government. 

Phnom Penh City Hall later ordered the workers to stop the strike to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Authorities jailed her and other union leaders for two months but released them on bail the following March.

Chhim Sithar and her two lawyers provided by the Cambodian human rights group Licadho maintain that the court did not inform them of any bail conditions. They requested a review of the file to see if it included bail conditions, but the court denied the request in violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure, according to the statement by the NGOs.

Cambodian immigration allowed the labor union leader to leave the country earlier this month, the statement noted.

'This is outrageous'

Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s director general, told RFA that the second arrest was an attempt to intimidate the union and force workers not to strike. 

“The NGOs observed that Chhim Sithar didn’t breach any law according to the charges,” he said.  “She wasn't aware of any court supervision order imposed on her.”

In response to the call by the civil society organizations, Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a statement Tuesday saying Chhim Sithar left Cambodia without the investigating judge’s approval, thereby violating the court’s supervision order.

Australian MP Julian Hill, who met with Chhim Sithar in Melbourne, said he was shocked by her latest arrest, saying the accusation that she had breached her bail conditions was nonsense because no one informed her of them.

“This is outrageous,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Another incident of Hun Sen’s gangster regime attacking union leaders for doing their job.”

Hill called on the Cambodian government to release her immediately and the NagaWorld casino to resolve the dispute sensibly.

Ath Thun, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said the matter was a labor dispute and that authorities should not use the judiciary to repeatedly arrest her. “The authorities should not arrest her unless they have a definite restriction on her leaving the country,” he said.

“The government should be transparent and resolve this problem,” he added.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that it was deeply concerned by the arrest of Chhim Sithar and called for her immediate release.

The U.S. also called on the Cambodian govern to uphold its labor rights obligations and to mediate a resolution between NagaWorld and the labor union representing terminated employees.

RFA could not reach Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan on Wednesday for comment on the U.S.’s statement.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said the government should do as the U.S. says to avoid possible punishment.  

“If we don’t coordinate or resolve the problem according to the international community’s requests, they might impose more sanctions against us,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a statement saying that Chhim Sithar’s arrest had nothing to do with the ministry or the NagaWorld labor dispute. It also said the ministry has tried to resolve the case and that 124 of 373 affected workers have still refused to accept compensation to end the dispute.  

On Dec. 1 the court is scheduled to hear a case brought by three union workers from NagaWorld who have requested that the judiciary justify the company’s termination of the union workers as legal.

In a separate case, the court has summoned 11 NagaWorld workers on charges of trespassing on company property while protesting outside the casino. 

 Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

The update adds information from statements issued by the U.S. State Department and Cambodia's Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, and updates on court actions.

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