Hundreds march in Cambodia's capital to mark Labour Day after ban lifted

Workers march along a street to mark International Labour Day in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2019.
Workers march along a street to mark International Labour Day in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (DPA) - Hundreds of Cambodian workers on Wednesday (May 1) marched about 1km around a city block in the capital to mark International Labour Day, with authorities allowing the short procession after they had banned May Day marches for years.

Unions and civil society groups calling for the protection of labour rights and promotion of gender equality gathered in two parks along Phnom Penh's riverside. Organisers said more than 1,000 people attended in each location.

An Rama, a regional coordinator for the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said they had hoped to have more than 2,000 workers march 3km from Wat Phnom, a capital landmark and popular tourist destination, to the National Assembly to deliver a petition to officials, but local authorities did not allow them.

"We want to show our power and that the voice of the workers is from themselves," Rama said.

After negotiations between union leaders and authorities, hundreds of demonstrators walked around a block from a riverside park near Wat Phnom and back wearing Labour Day T-shirts, waving small Cambodian flags and holding banners.

Their demands included establishing a minimum wage for all sectors, not just the key garment industry, and raising the current minimum wage of US$182 (S$247) per month for garment workers to a living wage of US$250, Rama said.

The Phnom Penh authorities have for years prevented unions and civil society groups that are critical of the long-ruling government of Prime Minister Hun Sen from holding public marches, stating that they will cause traffic congestion and disrupt public order.

In March, authorities prevented hundreds of demonstrators from marching on International Women's Day. Both Labour Day and Women's Day are public holidays in Cambodia, where Mr Hun Sen has led for more than 30 years.

Labour advocates said on Wednesday that they could not recall the government allowing any marches on Labour Day since the 2013 national elections, which were followed by mass street protests by the political opposition - who alleged voter fraud had cost them the poll - and workers calling for a higher minimum wage.

In 2014, five protesting garment workers were shot dead and more than 40 people were injured by military police in Phnom Penh who were attempting to quell stone-throwing demonstrators, the Cambodia Daily reported at the time.

Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party in 2017 after jailing its leader, Kem Sokha, on widely criticised treason charges, which he denies. Sokha remains under de facto house arrest.

Mr Hun Sen's ruling party swept 2018 national elections, which Western nations called unfair without the participation of a credible opposition party.

On Wednesday, about 1,200 people, including farmers and union and civil society members, rallied at Freedom Park - which was relocated further from the city centre in 2017 - according to Keo Chanra, general secretary of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Communities.

Chanra said organisers wondered why the authorities would not allow other demonstrations at Wat Phnom or another capital park near Wat Botum.

"Because we just gather to celebrate and express our concerns to the public," Chanra said.

"If we (were) allowed to celebrate the day at the public space, like Wat Botum and Wat Phnom parks, the place is ... much more public than here," she added.

A City Hall spokesman said he could not immediately comment and later could not be reached.

Chanra said the workers gathered at Freedom Park faced no interruptions from authorities because they had "already discussed and agreed together (with officials) to conduct the event here."

"We follow what they suggest to us," she said.