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Cambodian trade union leader who led protracted casino strike gets 2 years in prison

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A union leader who led a long strike against Cambodia’s biggest casino was sentenced to two years in prison on Thursday for incitement to commit a crime, while eight fellow union members received lesser sentences that do not include time passed behind bars.

Chhim Sithar, president of the labor rights-backed NagaWorld Khmer Employees Union, led a strike that began in December 2021 to protest mass layoffs and alleged union busting at the NagaWorld casino in the capital, Phnom Penh. She was convicted for leading a protest in January 2022 of nearly 400 other fired employees demanding to be rehired.

NagaWorld at the end of 2021 had laid off 373 employees amid financial difficulties related to the coronavirus pandemic.

NagaWorld is owned by a company controlled by the family of Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong. His business received its casino license in 1994 and the property is now a massive hotel-casino integrated entertainment complex.

Industrial actions are not uncommon in Cambodia but generally take place in factories in outlying areas or in industrial zones in other provinces. The protest by NagaWorld workers in the capital was exceptionally publicized and sparked sometimes violent police action.

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, granting them their freedom on the condition that they be subjected to appear before the court or other authorities whenever summoned. Three other defendants received one-year suspended sentences.

Chhim Sithar, dressed in an orange prison uniform, looked healthy and relaxed ahead of the verdict. Asked about the court hearing, she told The Associated Press: “Yes, I know the court is going to find me guilty and sentence me, and of course I will appeal.”

“I’m going to appeal because I can’t accept the verdict and I want the international community to know about our fight,” she said.

The verdict fell on Thursday as Cambodia prepares for general elections in July that are sure to return Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, who has ruled the country for 38 years with little tolerance for dissent, to power.

Opposition Candlelight, the only group to pose a credible challenge to the ruling party, is appealing a ruling that it cannot challenge polls on technical grounds that it failed to provide necessary documentation .

On Monday, three members of a Cambodian land rights organization and a researcher were charged with conspiracy against the state and incitement to commit a crime after the government accused them of planning to bring about a peasant revolution by teaching farmers the class divisions between rich and poor. If found guilty on both counts, they face up to 12 years in prison.

Hun Sen’s government staged a similar crackdown on opponents and critics ahead of the last general election in 2019.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Australian Council of Trade Unions have jointly called for the convictions to be quashed and Chhim Sithar’s release to be released.

“The sentencing of Chhim Sithar and others is a blatant attack on trade unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Regional Director for Research. “This verdict reminds us that the Cambodian government would rather side with business than protect the rights of its people.”

Sacked 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 Department of Labor and Skills Training said last December that 249 sacked workers had accepted compensation under labor law and dropped their claims, but 124 were still contesting their dismissal and the department would continue negotiations with them. .


Peck reported from Bangkok.

ABC News

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