PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- A labor union leader who led a long-running strike against Cambodia’s biggest casino was sentenced Thursday to two years in prison for incitement to commit a felony, while eight fellow union members received lesser terms that do not include time behind bars.
Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, has been leading a strike that began in December 2021 in protest of mass layoffs and alleged union-busting at the NagaWorld casino in the capital, Phnom Penh. She was convicted on a charge for leading a January 2022 demonstration of nearly 400 other dismissed employees who were demanding to be rehired.
NagaWorld in late 2021 had dismissed 373 employees amid financial struggles related to the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
Labor union actions are not rare in Cambodia but usually take place at factories in outlying areas or in industrial estates in other provinces. The protest by the NagaWorld workers in the capital was unusually high-profile and drew police action that was sometimes violent.
Judge Soeung Chakriya of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced five of Chhim Sithar’s co-defendants on the same charge to provisional prison terms of one-and-a-half years each, allowing them their freedom on the condition they are subject to appearing before the court or other authorities whenever summoned. Three other defendants received one-year suspended sentences.
Chhim Sithar, wearing an orange prison uniform, looked healthy and relaxed before the verdict. Asked about the court hearing, she told The Associated Press, “Yes, I know that the court will convict and sentence me, and of course I will appeal."
“I will appeal because I can’t accept the verdict and I want the international community to know of our struggle," she said.
As she was driven away after the verdict, she smiled at a group of supporters outside the court and raised a defiant fist.
The verdict Thursday came as Cambodia prepares for a general election in July that is certain to return to power the governing Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led the country for 38 years with little tolerance for dissent.
The opposition Candlelight Party, the sole credible challenger to the governing party, was barred Thursday from participating in the election over a paperwork issue. The move means the election will be held without an opposition party similar to the last general election in 2018, when Hun Sen’s government staged a similar pre-election crackdown on opponents and critics.
On Monday, three members of a Cambodian land rights organization and a researcher were charged with plotting against the state and incitement to commit a felony after the government accused them of planning to provoke a peasant revolution by teaching farmers about class divisions between rich and poor. If convicted on both charges, they could face up to 12 years in prison.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Australian Council of Trade Unions jointly called for the convictions to be quashed and Chhim Sithar to be freed.
“The convictions of Chhim Sithar and the others is a blatant attack on unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for research. “This verdict is a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people.”
Dismissed NagaWorld workers continue to demonstrate every weekend in support of their strike, according to Am Sam Ath, operations director of local rights group Licadho.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training said last December that 249 dismissed workers had accepted compensation under the labor law and dropped their demands, but 124 are still disputing their dismissal, and that the ministry would continue negotiating with them.
Peck reported from Bangkok.