On November 26, Cambodian authorities re-arrested prominent labor union leader Chhim Sithar for allegedly violating bail conditions requiring her not to travel abroad.
Chhim Sithar had visited Australia to attend the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress, and upon her return was detained at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Chhim Sithar helped lead a year-long protest after hundreds of employees of the NagaWorld casino complex in Phnom Penh were laid off, allegedly due to financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, she was arrested on incitement charges but was released on bail in March.
Human rights groups and several countries condemned her re-arrest, with the United States expressing “deep concern” on November 29.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price accused Cambodian authorities of interfering “with the exercise of workers' rights by detaining union leaders and workers protesting the wrongful termination of NagaWorld employees.”
“We urge Cambodian authorities to release Chhim Sithar and all detained trade unionists exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, drop charges against them, and move to constructively resolve their disputes,” Price said in a statement.
But Cambodian Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said those criticizing Chhim Sithar’s arrest were feigning ignorance of Cambodia’s courtroom rules and regulations to “cover up” for the labor leader.
He accused Sithar of violating her bail conditions by going abroad, adding that it is not persecution to expect compliance with the law.
“All of these procedures [leading to Chhim Sithar’s arrest] are stated clearly in our laws and – in a democratic society operating under the rule of law – they must be followed."
That is misleading given Cambodia's politicized judicial system.
Labor organizers have criticized Cambodian authorities for turning a union action into a criminal matter. Local human rights groups dispute that Chhim Sithar or her lawyers were made aware of any bail conditions.
What’s more, under Prime Minister Hun Sen, a dictatorial strongman who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 37 years, democratic norms and the rule of law are routinely violated to persecute labor leaders and the political opposition.
Analysts rank Cambodia among the world’s worst countries when it comes to the rule of law.
Chhim Sithar was first arrested on January 4 and spent 74 days in pretrial detention. The charge was “incitement to commit a felony” after her union organized a strike demanding that NagaWorld reinstate and provide compensation to 365 workers the company had laid off.
NagaWorld called the layoffs inevitable, citing losses from the COVID-19 pandemic’s business slowdown.
Rights groups, however, said the Hong Kong-listed owner of NagaWorld, NagaCorp, had posted a profit of $102.3 million in 2020 and was pursuing expansion plans when it announced mass layoffs.
NagaCorp did post a $147 million loss for 2021. The main issue, however, is the right of Chhim Sithar and other NagaWorld employees to strike.
Following Chhim Sithar’s initial arrest, United Nations human rights experts stressed that Cambodia’s constitution “enshrines the right to strike and the rights to freedom of association, expression, peaceful assembly, press and publication.”
The U.N. experts said the arrest of trade union leaders and strikers at the Naga World casino may have violated human rights law.
Cambodian civil society groups claim Chhim Sithar was never made aware that she was banned from traveling abroad.
“Neither Sithar nor her lawyers were informed of any bail conditions,” a joint statement by 69 Cambodian civil society and human rights groups read.
“Her lawyers’ request to view her case file, which would have contained such bail conditions, was never granted, in violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Sithar was allowed by Cambodian immigration to leave the country earlier this month.”
Prior to her re-arrest, Sithar had traveled to Thailand twice – once in September and then in October – without issue.
The NagaWorld union’s vice president, Chhim Sokhom, who was likewise jailed and released on bail this year, also said she had not been made aware of travel restrictions.
“On my paper, I didn’t see anything prohibited. I will let you see in case I am confused or something,” Cambodia’s independent VOD English news site quoted Sokhom as saying.
Cambodia’s government-aligned Fresh News posted a document purportedly dated March 14 (and signed by a prosecutor, court clerk and judge) banning Sithar from traveling abroad.
It is unclear if Sithar was shown that document, or when it was produced.
Sithar’s arrest fits within a broader pattern of Cambodian authorities persecuting labor activists, the political opposition and independent media.
A recent report by New York City-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented “widespread violations of workers’ rights to register, form, and join independent unions” at NagaWorld, and in other industries.
HRW said restrictions under Cambodia’s “problematic” COVID-19 law were used to thwart the ability of workers to exercise their right to strike.
“Authorities deemed virtually any strike to be ‘illegal,’ and police, non-uniformed police, and other security forces confronted strikers with excessive use of force, and forcibly removed them from picket lines onto city buses to transport them to the outskirts of the capital,” HRW said.
The group said that in four documented cases, “authorities and employers used or threatened to resort to Cambodia’s politicized criminal justice system to silence union leaders and activist members by arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and prosecuting them, or threatening to do so if union actions did not stop.”
HRW said “incitement to commit a felony” and other “bogus charges” under Cambodia’s pandemic law, “which imposes disproportionately high penalties on persons deemed to violate COVID-19 measures,” were used against the right to strike.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training spokesman dismissed the HRW report, saying it “does not reflect the truth on the ground.”
But Cambodia’s dismal record on workers’ rights, and a lack of legal impartiality, are well-documented.
Following a fact-finding mission in August (which included a visit with striking NagaWorld workers), Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, made 10 recommendations.
Contrary to claims that Cambodia is a democratic country, Muntarbhorn noted “the main opposition party (Cambodia National Rescue Party) was disbanded unjustly by judicial order” in 2017, effectively leaving the country “under single-party rule.”
“This has led to systemic control by the powers-that-be, leading to political and other distortions undermining the call for a pluralistic democracy,” Muntarbhorn said.
In November 2017, Charles Santiago, chairman of the advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the liquidation of the Cambodia National Rescue Party "the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy.”
ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-country regional group headquartered in Jakarta that focuses on cooperation.
Muntarbhorn stressed the need to improve the judiciary, in part by distancing it “from the power base” to help ensure its “independence and impartiality.”
A 2021 U.S. State Department human rights report said Cambodia’s “constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts.”
“Court decisions were often subject to political influence. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or the executive received judicial appointments. Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was inefficient and could not assure due process. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined.”
A 2015 report from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute also outlined serious challenges to judicial independence in Cambodia.
In 2021, the Washington D.C.-based World Justice Project (WJP) ranked Cambodia 138th out of 139 countries when it comes to observing rule of law.
The headline of December 2019 article in Foreign Policy magazine, written by Charles Dunst of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it this way: “In Cambodia, ‘Rule of Law’ Means Hun Sen Rules.”
That echoed Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which reported in July 2018 that Cambodia’s high court had become a rubber stamp, “widely known to be under the control of Hun Sen.”