Cambodian court hears ‘incitement’ case against NagaWorld union members

A rights group says the case is politically motivated and calls for charges to be dropped.
By RFA Khmer
2023.03.15
Cambodian court hears ‘incitement’ case against NagaWorld union members Plainclothes police arrest Cambodian union leader Chhim Sithar in Phnom Penh, Jan. 4, 2022.
Citizen journalist

A Cambodian court heard opening statements on Tuesday in a case against members of a union fighting for better pay and working conditions at the NagaWorld Casino. An international rights group dismissed the incitement charges as baseless, calling for their release.

The case is the latest against the NagaWorld union members and part of what observers say is a larger crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party on unions in the Southeast Asian nation ahead of a general election slated for July 23.

The Phnom Penh Municipality Court held a trial hearing in the case against Chhim Sokhorn, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, Kleang Soben, the union’s secretary general, and seven of the union’s members.

The court reportedly questioned the union members on their strike activities and sources of financial support, before announcing a resumption of the hearing on March 21.

Kleang Soben told RFA Khmer that the judge also questioned why the union refused to accept compensation for its members to quit their jobs and settle the dispute outside of court.

She said the ongoing strike by casino workers is intended to force NagaWorld to obey Cambodia’s labor laws, not pay money to skirt them.

"I would like the court to drop all charges against the workers because all protests are the result of actions by the casino’s management, which refused to obey the labor law," she said.

"It is less about money than it is about getting employers to respect the law."

Attempts by RFA to reach Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Suor went unanswered Tuesday.

Call for release

Tuesday’s hearing came as New York-based Human Rights Watch called for authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release” the nine union members, who he said are the victims of a larger government crackdown on Cambodia’s unions.

“Cambodian authorities are misusing the criminal justice system to target a union president and other labor rights activists,” said Phil Robertson, the organization’s deputy Asia director.

“People like Chhim [Sokhorn] of the LRSU and other labor rights advocates face an increasingly uphill fight to protect the rights of workers as civic space narrows ahead of the scheduled national elections in July.”

Chhim Sithor was arrested after returning to Cambodia from a labor conference in Australia on Nov. 26 for violating bail conditions that apparently restricted her from leaving the country.

Her arrest was condemned by NagaWorld strikers, civil society officials, and the U.S. State Department. 

Police initially arrested Chhim Sithar back in Dec. 2021, charging her with “inciting social chaos” for leading a strike at the NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex, one of the world’s most profitable gambling centers located in the capital of Phnom Penh. 

Chhim Sithor’s defense lawyer has argued that she was never properly informed of the travel restrictions against her. 

Thousands of NagaWorld employees walked off their jobs during that strike, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired from the casino, owned by Malaysian billionaire Tan Sri Chen Lip Keong. 

Since then, Cambodian authorities have claimed that the strike was illegal and the product of alleged foreign donations.

Escalating attacks ahead of election

Human Rights Watch’s Robertson said that the case amounted to discrimination against workers for participating in trade union activities, which is a violation of international human rights law and standards.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government should reverse its escalating attacks on trade unions, independent media, the political opposition, and human rights defenders as the July national elections approach,” he said.

“The European Union, United States, United Kingdom, and Cambodia’s other key trading partners should make it clear that such continued repression will affect ties long before election day.”

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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