Court Sentences Cambodian Union Leaders to Prison Amid Wave of Repression

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — The Cambodian labor movement received a major blow from their government on May 25 when a judge sentenced the leadership of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld (LRSU) to prison.

LRSU launched a strike at NagaWorld, the nation’s largest casino, in December 2021 with the demand for the company to reinstate 365 union members who were fired during the pandemic. Since the strike launched, union members faced a multitude of repressive tactics from the authorities, ranging from police brutality on the picket line to constant surveillance of union members.

Most of the union leaders who were put on trial were all arrested and initially charged with incitement and social unrest after a highly coordinated police raid of the LRSU union hall in Phnom Penh on December 31, 2021. Since then, most leaders have been in and out of prison, and have been held in legal and political limbo.

Union President Chhim Sithar received the harshest sentence of two years in prison. She was transferred directly to prison after the trial ended. Union members who gathered across the street from the municipal court in protest waved at Chhim or raised clenched fists in the air as the police van transporting her sped by.

The gathering was suddenly overcome with feelings of exasperation and indignation. Tear-swept faces looked through the line of police, and the walls of the courthouse, as if searching for some semblance of justice.

Photo: Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Five leaders were sentenced to one and a half years in prison, but were allowed to walk out of the court. They plan to appeal the ruling. Three leaders, including Ry Sovandy who was recently interviewed by Unicorn Riot in a two-part story on the NagaWorld strike, were sentenced to one year in prison; however, the sentences were suspended.

Union secretary Kleang Soben was sentenced to one and a half years. She appeared unshaken after the harsh sentencing. Standing amid a crowd of 100 union members protesting outside the court, she said that “at first we hoped the court would drop the charges … we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Kleang explained to Unicorn Riot that she often heard from other Khmer people that the legal system was corrupt to the point where common people could never find any justice. “I never believed it when the people always said that they never get justice.” Now, she said she’s “feeling disappointed. I now trust the people who always said that the court never gives justice.”

Many union members feel that the trial was decidedly anti-union from the beginning. LRSU member Mam Sovathin was present at the protest the day of the sentencing. She joined the other union members in chants of protest and songs of solidarity. She was visibly angry and overcome with emotion once the union members heard the verdict. “I understand that the justice system in Cambodia is not fair and independent,” she shared with Unicorn Riot.

Mam was one of the union activists fired by NagaWorld during the pandemic. She helps organize the ongoing protests at the company and is facing anti-union charges separate from the charges LRSU leaders faced. Mam sees the attack on her union as a threat to undermine the entire labor movement. “The state and NagaWorld casino are working together to dissolve this union in order to prevent other unions in Cambodia from protesting,” she said. LRSU members joined other unions in protest on May Day this year to protest union busting across the country.

Photo: Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Since 1998 Cambodia has been ruled by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander turned longtime dictator. Human rights and social movement activists are alarmed at the rate that the one party state, ruled by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has intensified its repression, not just of the LRSU and labor movement, but of all political dissidents.

Human Rights Watch published an article on May 25 stating that they, Amnesty International and the Australian Council of Trade Unions “call upon the Cambodian authorities to immediately quash the convictions and unconditionally release Chhim Sithar and her fellow union members who have been detained solely for their defense of workers’ rights.”

The same day that LRSU members were sentenced, the nation’s Constitutional Council ruled that the Candlelight Party, the main opposition party to the ruling CPP, is effectively banned from running any candidates in the upcoming July elections. Three land rights activists from the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community were charged with “incitement and plotting” and were accused by the Ministry of the Interior of planning a peasant revolution to violently overthrow Hun Sen. The claims appear to be baseless.

Kleang Soben weighed in on the growing political repression in her country. She said that union members like herself “feel like we live without peace. We feel worried.” She wondered if union leaders and members would once again face politically motivated charges.

The past 17 months of striking, protesting, police brutality, and political and legal repression have been nothing short of brutal. Despite all the odds, Soben said, “We still have hope, even if it’s only one percent, we still hope. We won’t give up.”

Editors’ note: On Khmer (Cambodian) names. Names are normally written in the Khmer language with the surname first, and the given/first name last. This form was used in this article.

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