Cambodian union leader jailed over casino strike

Union leader Chhim Sithar has been jailed by Cambodian authorities for leading a strike against the country’s biggest casino to demand reinstatement of workers laid off during the pandemic. – AFP pic, May 25, 2023.

A CAMBODIAN court today jailed a woman union leader for two years for leading a strike against the country’s biggest casino to demand the reinstatement of workers laid off during the pandemic.  

Chhim Sithar had long campaigned for the return of hundreds of workers laid off from the NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh.  

She was first arrested in January last year at a protest site near the casino and was charged with incitement, a common tactic authorities use against activists, before being re-arrested in November.  

Several dozen former casino workers demonstrated outside the court after her sentencing today, shouting “injustice” as Chhim Sithar was taken away in a prison van.  

“I cannot accept this,” former casino worker and protester Sok Ratana told AFP outside the court.  

“She just protects the rights of workers, she helps workers, why was she accused of incitement?”  

Sok Ratana, who was laid off two years ago, said they were shocked at the verdict and emphasised they only wanted fair treatment.  

“Why are we accused of causing chaos?”  

Protester Raksmey, who gave only one name, called the verdict unjust and asked: “How can they say the court is independent?”  

“As long as there is not a solution, we will continue our strike for a solution because this is about the rice pot, it is not about politics,” she said, referencing their daily meal.  

“We will keep protesting for our labour rights despite everything (that has) happened.”  

Five other union members from Chhim Sithar’s group were given 18-month court monitoring orders and three more received one-year suspended jail sentences.  

Rights groups have said the charges are baseless.  

‘Blatant attack’ 

Nagacorp, a Hong Kong-listed firm that operates NagaWorld, has an exclusive casino licence to operate in Phnom Penh.  

Cambodia has a complex relationship with gambling: while it has casinos, its own citizens are officially barred from playing in them.  

International monitoring groups condemned the decision, with Human Rights Watch saying Phnom Penh had sided with Nagacorp from the beginning.  

“Instead of respecting workers’ rights to freedom of association, bargain collectively, and strike, the government has used every repressive trick in the book to intimidate their union,” said Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.  

Amnesty International labelled the convictions “a blatant attack on unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights”.  

“This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people,” said Amnesty’s Montse Ferrer.  

Prime Minister Hun Sen – who has ruled Cambodia for more than 38 years – has been accused by rights groups of using the courts to stifle dissent as he prepares for the July election. – AFP, May 25, 2023.   

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