The Cambodian union leader who led a long-running casino strike was sentenced to two years in prison
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A union leader who led a long-running strike against Cambodia’s biggest casino was sentenced to two years in prison on Thursday for incitement to commit a crime, while eight union members received lighter terms that did not include time behind bars.
Chhim Sithar, president of the NagaWorld Khmer Employees Trade Union Supported by Labor Rights, began leading a strike in December 2021 to protest mass layoffs and alleged union-busting at the NagaWorld casino in the capital, Phnom Penh. He was convicted of leading a January 2022 demonstration involving nearly 400 other fired employees demanding his reinstatement.
NagaWorld laid off 373 employees at the end of 2021 amid financial difficulties related to the coronavirus outbreak.
NagaWorld is owned by a company controlled by the family of Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong. His company received its casino license in 1994, and the property is now a huge integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex.
Union action is not uncommon in Cambodia, but usually takes place in factories in outlying areas or industrial areas in other provinces. The protests by NagaWorld workers in the capital have been unusually high-profile and have occasionally provoked violent police action.
Phnom Penh City Court Judge Soeung Chakriya sentenced Chhim Sithar’s five co-accused on the same charge to one and a half years in temporary prison each, granting them freedom on the condition that they appear in court. to a court or other authority when summoned. Three other defendants received a one-year suspended sentence.
Wearing an orange prison uniform, Chhim Sithar appeared healthy and calm before the verdict. Asked about the court hearing, he told The Associated Press: “Yes, I know the court will convict and convict, and of course I will appeal.”
“I will appeal because I cannot accept the verdict and I want the international community to know about our fight,” he said.
Thursday’s ruling comes as Cambodia prepares for general elections in July that are sure to return Prime Minister Hun Sen to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, who has ruled the country for 38 years with no tolerance for dissent.
The opposition Candlelight Party, the only group to mount a credible challenge to the ruling party, is appealing the ruling that it cannot challenge the poll on the technical grounds that it failed to submit the necessary documents.
Three members of a Cambodian land rights organization and a researcher were charged Monday with anti-state conspiracy and incitement to commit a crime after the government accused them of trying to spark a peasant revolution by teaching farmers about the class divide between rich and poor. If convicted on both counts, they could face up to 12 years in prison.
Hun Sen’s government implemented a similar crackdown on opponents and critics before the last general election in 2019.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Australian Council of Trade Unions jointly called for the convictions to be overturned and Chhim Sithar’s release.
“The convictions of Chhim Sithar and others are a clear attack on trade unions and workers fighting for their basic rights,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s Interim Deputy Regional Director of Research. “This ruling is a reminder that the Cambodian government prefers to side with corporations rather than protect people’s rights.”
According to Am Sam Ath, operations director of the local rights group Licadho, the sacked NagaWorld workers continue to demonstrate every weekend in support of their strike.
Last December, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training announced that 249 dismissed workers agreed to compensation under the labor law and dropped their demands, but 124 still dispute the dismissal and the ministry continues negotiations with them.
Peck reported from Bangkok.