Cheang Thida (pictured below) is a young woman local union leader of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) at Kin Tai Factory in Phnom Penh. Last December she led 10,000 workers on a legal and peaceful strike demanding a minimum wage that satisfies the workers' basic needs. As a consequence, she was sacked from her job making Armani Jeans.
By the beginning of January this year the strike had spread and was involving between 50,000 and 100,000 according to grassroots worker organisers. But their strike was crushed by a brutal military intervention on January 2-3 which resulted in the killing of at least four workers and serious injuries to many more. On January 4 a protest camp of the opposition CRNP was violently dispersed.
Twenty-three workers and activists detained in the crushing of are still in prison and are facing charges of intentional aggravated violence and intentional aggravated damage to property.
A Free The 23 campaign has been launched by trade unions and human rights groups. But when a small group of unionists and activists from the campaign tried to present copies of statements of protests to foreign embassies in Phnom Penh on January 21, 11 of them were detained.
Among the 11 detained (and released later that day) was Cheang Thida and Rong Chhun, a leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) to which Thida's union is affiliated. According to Joel Preston, an Australian working as a consultant with the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) in Cambodia, they were targeted because they are leaders of the “the fiercest and most independent union confederation in the country”.
“Thida was instrumental in leading 10,000 workers on strike in a major garment district, Chak Angre Krom. As a result Mr Rong Chhun was summoned to court on January 14. Following this, Thida and Chhun were at the US Embassy with a group of other activists submitting a petition for the release of the detained workers when a car pulled up and police kidnapped the two from the crowd," Preston told Green Left Weekly
“Chhun is a very public figure and those associated with CCU, CATU or CITA (The Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association) are also at risk.”
An attempt by the Free The 23 campaign to hold a small prayer meeting near the Royal Palace on the evening of January 19 was also broken up.
The Phnom Penh municipal government has imposed a ban on gatherings of 10 or more in the city and has enlisted private security guards to strictly enforce this ban. These security guards are dressed in blue uniforms and wear black-visor motorbike helmets (see photo right). They carry long batons and have been aggressive towards protesters.
A group of trade unions and human rights organisations have responded by calling a mass rally for January 26 at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.
Malay Tim, the president of the Cambodian Youth Network, told GLW that the rally was called by nine trade union and associations: the he Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation; Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association; the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions; the Cambodian Youth Network; the Cambodia's Independent Civil-Servants Association; the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia; the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia; the National Trade Union Coalition; and the Cambodia Independent Teachers Association.
“We hope to bring out about 10,000 people around three demands: 1. Free the 23 human rights defender and workers; 2. A minimum wage US$160 a month for workers in all sectors; 3. Stop the violence.”
Tim added that the government had refused a permit for the rally and warned that it will be dispersed however the people “had no alternative but to counter-attack with non-violent struggle for justice and a living wage.”
He rejected the ban on gatherings of 10 or more saying it contravened the Cambodian constitution which guarantees rule according to “principles of liberal democracy and pluralism” (Article 1).
Tim also pointed to Article 42 which says:
“Khmer Citizens shall have the right to establish associations and political parties. These rights shall be determined by law.
“Khmer citizens may take part in mass organisations for mutual benefit to protect national achievement and social order.”
Mora Sar, the president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation told GLW that his union was one of the main organisers of the rally called for January 26.
“The detention of the 23 was one of the ways the government used to break the garment workers' strike and to turn our attention away from the demand for a minimum wage.
“The government tried to frame up the workers for violence and used this as the excuse to crackdown on strike and on the demonstration by the opposition party at Freedom Park, which had been growing from day to day.
“This is how the ruling party which benefits from a corrupt system was able to satisfy to capitalists running the garment industry and at the same time crackdown on the demonstration at Freedom Park which it saw as a threat to its power.”
Cheang Thida, local union leader of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) at Kin Tai Factory in Phnom Penh. Photo by Heather Stilwell. A video bringing together other photos by Stilwell of the December-January garment workers' strike in Cambodia can be watched here.