Beating of Unionist a Black Eye for Cambodia in Midst of Major ASEAN Summit

Joint Organizations

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Union leader Rong Panha is beaten and taken away by police during a peaceful gathering on July 11, 2012.

July 11, 2012 - We, the undersigned organizations, condemn the authorities' vicious and unprovoked beating of a union activist today in Phnom Penh, which came after trade union workers peacefully presented a petition to the Prime Minister. (Video here)

Rong Panha of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) was beaten in front of Wat Botum after a group of 20 CATU workers had marched from Phnom Penh's Freedom Park to a public park nearby the Prime Minister's home to present a petition to his cabinet. The workers are employed by Tai Yang Enterprises, which supplies international clothing giants Levi Strauss, Gap and Old Navy, among others.

The beating is yet another incident in a string of events demonstrating Cambodian authorities' increasing willingness to use violence against peaceful demonstrators. It is also an embarrassing black eye for the Kingdom, coming as Phnom Penh hosts a major ASEAN summit attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level world leaders. The summit focuses on diplomatic and business issues

"All eyes are on Cambodia right now as it hosts this important international summit," said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. "Yet a unionist is beaten bloody on the street during a peaceful gathering - a unionist who is working to improve conditions for workers who supply some of the world's largest clothing manufacturers."

"The inability of the authorities to tolerate this small, peaceful gathering sends a very clear message: This kind of thing is no longer an aberration in Cambodia," Pilorge said. "Is this the image that Cambodia's leaders want to send to the rest of the world while they have their moment on the stage?"

Tai Yang factory workers have been on strike for the past three weeks, seeking US $15 in rental and transport allowances, US $15 for milk for mothers who have just delivered, and a $15 dollar bonus. The workers are also demanding that the company acknowledge that it recently changed its name and owner, which under Cambodian labor law triggers mandatory compensation for workers.

The workers previously blocked National Road 4 in Kandal Province as part of their strike, but agreed to suspend their action when authorities assured them that Tai Yang would negotiate. The factory never came to negotiate, however.

Last week, 4,000 Tai Yang workers attempted to march to Phnom Penh, but police prevented them from entering the city. Workers agreed to stay out of the city in exchange for a meeting between the parties at the Ministry of Labor. But the meeting failed to produce any concessions from the factory. CATU claims that the factory is not negotiating in good faith.

Finally, on Wednesday, the workers originally planned to march from the Freedom Park to the Prime Minister's residence en masse, but police blocked them. After negotiations, the authorities agreed to allow 19 workers to march, along with Rong Chhun, president of CATU's parent group, the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU).

The group made it as far as Wat Botum before they were blocked by police. A representative from the Prime Minister's cabinet then came out to accept the petition. The workers - tired from their walk - then gathered to rest in the public park adjacent to Wat Botum.

"Anti-riot" intervention police, who arrived after the petition was submitted, told them they could not stay there. When the unionists refused to move - asking for a five minute rest before walking back - police mobilized to physically force them to leave. During the ensuing scuffle, a police officer beat Rong Panha on the head with a baton. He emerged from the crowd bloodied and dazed, before being carried away in a police truck. Panha was taken to the Phnom Penh municipal police station where he has since been detained.

The incident is sure to draw negative attention from international leaders who are currently in Phnom Penh for the ASEAN summit.

Hillary Clinton, who is among the leaders currently in Phnom Penh, said earlier this week that the "heart" of the United States' international diplomatic strategy, "the piece that brings everything together, is ... support for democracy and human rights. ... The United States wants to be a strong partner to all those who are dedicated to human rights and fundamental freedoms."

We call upon the authorities to cease the wanton use of violence at peaceful protests. We also call upon Tai Yang Enterprises to return to the negotiating table with CATU, and to negotiate in good faith. Further, the government authorities, especially the Ministry of Labor, should fulfill their role as a neutral arbitrator - not an ally of wealthy business interests - in resolving the current labor dispute.

Cambodia's Civil Servants Association (CICA)
Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF)
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Cambodian Worker Center for Development (CWCD)
Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)

For more information, please contact:
 Am Sam Ath, LICADHO Technical Supervisor, 012 327 770 (Khmer)
 Ee Sarom , STT Programmes Coordinator, 012 836 533 (Khmer and English)
 Moeun Tola, CLEC Head of Labour Program, 012 921 961 (Khmer and English)

PDF format: Download full statement in English - Download full statement in Khmer