Cambodia frees detained casino workers amid UN, US concerns

Phnom Penh faced pressure over using COVID-19 restrictions as a pretext to break the strike.
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Cambodia frees detained casino workers amid UN, US concerns NagaWorld workers protest at a quarantine center in Phnom Penh, in an undated photo.
Citizen journalist

Authorities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday released around 200 workers detained a day earlier for “violating COVID-19 protocols” while demanding a resolution to their long-standing labor dispute, which had prompted condemnation from both the U.N. and Washington.

NagaWorld Casino workers told RFA’s Khmer Service that police carried out a “violent crackdown” on their strike Tuesday and ferried them against their will to several quarantine facilities, allegedly to be tested for the disease caused by the coronavirus. However, authorities released them on Wednesday after they refused submit to the tests without an official order.

Chhin Ouksaphea, a worker who was quarantined in a center on the outskirts of the city, said she and her fellow strikers were told “to walk home” upon their release and were denied medical attention despite being roughed up by police the day before.

But she expressed hope that the government would help to resolve the dispute following an inter-ministerial meeting held later Wednesday to address the matter.

Thousands of NagaWorld workers walked off their jobs in mid-December, demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of 11 jailed union leaders and workers and 365 others they say were unjustly fired from the hotel and casino, which is owned by a Hong Kong-based company believed to have connections to family members of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Cambodian authorities have called the strike “illegal” and alleged that it is supported by foreign donors as a plot to topple the government. But a series of mass arrests in recent weeks have been attributed to alleged violations of pandemic health regulations in Cambodia’s capital. Activists said the charges were trumped up to break up the strike.

Details of Wednesday’s inter-ministerial meeting – presided over by Cambodian Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and expected to include ministers of the health, labor and justice departments and the heads of the Phnom Penh city government, municipal court, and the national police – were not made public and attempts by RFA to contact Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Meas Pheakdey went unanswered.

Global criticism

The dispute and its handling by the government has drawn the attention of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who in her statement at the 49th session of the Human Rights Council on Monday said she was troubled by authorities’ “use of COVID-19 restrictions to further erode democratic and civic space, including as a pretext to break a lawful strike” by the casino workers.

“I call on the authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly and engage in dialogue to address the strikers’ legitimate requests,” Bachelet said.

Cambodia’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Sokkhoeurn An responded to Bachelet’s statement on Tuesday by calling the human rights chief “ill-advised and selective” about the situation in his country and dismissing her claim that the strike was lawful, citing a court decision in December. He added that authorities had “exercised the utmost restraint” in detaining the protesters – 130 of whom he said had “tested positive” – and suggested that the strike was an abuse of the right to peaceful assembly.

The government’s response to the strike also drew condemnation from the U.S. State Department on Tuesday, which applauded “the courage of women union leaders in Cambodia who have bravely led their union at the NagaWorld casino” in marking International Women’s Day.

“The United States has serious concerns about the use of criminal charges against those peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, calling on authorities to release all detained unionists, drop charges against them, and “move to constructively resolve their dispute.”

Ny Sokha, the director of Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA on Wednesday that NGOs are calling for the unconditional release of the 11 jailed union leaders and for the authorities to facilitate talks to end the labor dispute.

“The government should first drop charges against the workers,” he said. “We NGOs want to see all of the workers released.”

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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