Cambodian labor activists said a visiting United Nations human rights official was given the false impression that the country supports worker rights by authorities who paused a violent crackdown on a months-long protest by a group of former casino employees while the official toured the site.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, is on an 11-day official visit to the country, his first since assuming office in March 2021.
His tour included a meeting with the group of former NagaWorld Casino workers who have been protesting since they were among 1,300 laid off by the casino in December 2021. The workers say they were unfairly fired and offered inadequate compensation.
“I was pleased to be able to visit striking workers and see them exercise their freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly today,” Vitit Muntarbhorn wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
During the visit, the former workers were uncharacteristically allowed to protest directly in front of the casino on Wednesday and Thursday. United Nations Human Rights in Cambodia also monitored the protest on Wednesday, releasing video footage on Facebook with a statement acknowledging that the protest was peaceful.
“The UN Human Rights Cambodia office welcomes today’s developments and looks forward to authorities continuing to protect strikers’ rights, including the right to #peaceful #assembly and #FreedomofExpression,” the statement said.
But the scene has not alway been so peaceful. The striking workers have more typically been met by police officers, who often used violence to force the protestors onto buses, which would then shuttle them to quarantine centers on the outskirts of town on the premise that their protests violated COVID-19 prevention measures.
Some strikers have been injured in the crackdown, now in its ninth month. One woman said she suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injuries inflicted by police.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the new hands-off approach to the worker over the past few days is a ruse intended to convince Vitit Muntarbhorn and the U.N. that Cambodia respects human rights, but things will return to normal once he leaves.
“The government wants to save face and trick the rapporteur,” Rong Chhun said. “Please, Mr. Rapporteur, don’t believe this trick. … [Later] there will be more freedom restrictions.”
The rapporteur’s presence alone was enough to get authorities to ease restrictions, Chhim Sithar, leader of the NagaWorld union that represents the strikers, told RFA.
“Before the arrival of the rapporteur, there were serious violent attacks [on the strikers] which injured at least two women recently. It is completely different now,” she said.
“We have observed that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen requested that [the rapporteur] report positive things about Cambodia, so violence has been reduced. This is just a show to make sure that the rapporteur can’t see factual events,” she said.
Government supporters say that the special rapporteur is being shown the true Cambodia.
“Those who accuse the government of faking respect for human rights are trying to create a toxic environment to destroy the government’s reputation,” Kata Orn, spokesman for the government-backed Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told RFA.
He said that there is an understanding between the workers and the authorities that allows the workers to strike without any crackdown.
Political analyst Kem Sok told RFA that the rapporteur should gather information from all the stakeholders before making any statement.
“Hun Sen has no desire to respect human rights and democracy otherwise it is a threat to his power,” he said.
A group of U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) also visited Cambodia this week as part of their tour of Asia. During a meeting with more than a dozen government officials, Markey urged Cambodia to protect human rights, political freedoms and free speech.
“Cambodians overcame decades of war and chaos that cost the country millions of lives, and deserve to enjoy the democratic freedoms they were promised. The government must release political prisoners, end the crackdown against opposition parties, and allow for freedom of expression and a free press,” Markey said in a statement.
Markey also called for the release of Cambodian American activist Theary Seng, who is serving a six-year prison sentence for her outspoken opposition to Hun Sen.
The delegation also met with opposition leader Kem Sohka, who is on trial for what critics say are politically motivated charges of treason.
“I thank Mr. Kem Sokha for his bravery and willingness to continue to stand up for the rights of all Cambodians despite ongoing harassment by the government,” said Markey.
“All charges against him should be dropped immediately, and he and the Cambodia National Rescue Party should be free to participate in elections.”
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.