Plainclothes police officers violently arrested NagaWorld union president Chhim Sithar Tuesday afternoon as she attempted to join a peaceful strike outside the Australian embassy.
The rough arrest, in which officers surrounded and grabbed Sithar before dragging her into a white sedan, was caught on video by journalists at the scene and marked a dramatic escalation in the spate of arrests of the striking unionists.
Representatives of the union also reported on Tuesday that police had arrested two other members, Sok Narith and Sok Kong Kea, making for a total of 26 NagaWord detained since New Year’s Eve.
Union member Nop Tithboravy, 38, who works in NagaWorld’s food and beverage section and was at the Tuesday strike, told CamboJA by phone that the unionists will continue their peaceful strike despite the arrests of their leadership.
“The three arrests of union leaders have threatened our strike but I would like to say that we still remain on strike due to the conflict with the company, not with authorities,” she said.
Phnom Penh Municipal police spokesman San Sok Seiha did not comment on the three arrests of union leaders, while civil society groups denounced the detentions as a clear-cut human rights violation.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the labor rights group Central, expressed his disappointment of continuing legal action against strikers over the involvement of labor disputes.
“The arrest of union leaders and members violated labor law, violated rights to hold peaceful strikes,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of the labor rights group Central.
Tola said the NagaWorld workers’ strike is in line with relevant law outlining labor dispute processes and called on authorities to protect the safety of the strikers.
On Tuesday morning, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court held a press conference to unveil what the state claimed as evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Sithar and six other people jailed on incitement charges. The conference was streamed online but was closed in-person to several media outlets, according to reporting from Cambodian publications, and attended mostly by government-aligned news sources.
With broad rhetorical strokes that echoed “color revolution” rhetoric used in other political disputes, deputy prosecutor Seng Hieng accused the LRSU of being funded by international organizations intending to provoke unrest in Cambodia.
“There is a lot of evidence … all inculpatory evidence that has demonstrated that those groups have tricked ill-intentioned people to cause turmoil in our social security,” Hieng said.
The deputy prosecutor said the union had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support from both local and international sources. He named the East West Management Institute (EWMI), a US-based non-profit organization, as one of those sources but said the local groups required “further investigating” before he would identify them.
“I say that it is illegally funded,” Hieng said of the strike. He didn’t elaborate on how it was illegal but said the investigation had found digital evidence, including messages in a Telegram chat group, to support that claim.
On its website, the East West institute describes itself as a group that “works to strengthen democratic society by bringing together government, civil society, and the private sectors–to build accountable, capable and transparent institutions.”
Hieng said six of the unionists arrested on New Year’s Eve had confessed to crimes related to funding the strike. That group has been sent to pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center II.
Also at the conference, Phnom Penh police spokesman San Sok Seiha confirmed that 17 people were arrested on Monday and are being detained for further investigation.
“We are questioning them to see whether they are involved in the illegal movement or not. If we find evidence, we will send the case to the court, as with the six [other] people,” he said.
A broad band of civil society condemned the police crackdown Tuesday, with 119 rights groups signing onto a joint statement demanding the unconditional release of all the imprisoned unionists.
“We are dismayed by the measures taken by authorities, who failed to uphold their roles and obligations to protect strikers who conduct a peaceful strike,” the letter read. “ Instead, the authorities arrested the union leaders and members, even at night, and improperly accused them of a crime.”
Ny Sokha, president of rights group Adhoc, called on the authorities to stop using a culture of politically divisive rhetoric to frame organizations for crimes.
“I think that authorities are incapable of resolving problems and should not use this rhetoric against strikers,” Sokha said.