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Headaches mount for Cambodia's dictatorial PM

Strengthening opposition and endless protests may force Hun Sen into dialogue

<p>Police opened fire on demonstrators in Phnom Penh on January 3, resulting in four deaths</p>

Police opened fire on demonstrators in Phnom Penh on January 3, resulting in four deaths

  • Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok
  • Cambodia
  • January 20, 2014
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Last Tuesday morning, Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sohkha walked beaming out of a courtroom in Phnom Penh. They had been summoned for questioning about the garment workers’ protest that culminated in tragedy, with police opening fire on the demonstrators and shooting four dead on January 3.

The fact that the party leaders were dragged into court with union leader Rong Chhun, and that no action has been taken against the police, gives credence to their claims that the court’s action was politically motivated.

“After the questioning, if there is no political pressure, the case will be dismissed. If the case is under political pressure, we will be persecuted,” Rainsy told the cheering crowd who braved the new government ban on protests of more than 10 people.

Rainsy and Sohkha have been staging peaceful rallies to demand a fresh election ever since they narrowly lost the July 28 poll, which independent observers say was rigged.

The official result saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party win 63 seats to the opposition Cambodian Rescue Party’s 58. But more than a million people were missing from the electoral rolls, as well as other irregularities.

The CRP has refused to take its seats in parliament. And this is just one of the challenges facing Hun Sen, the country’s Prime Minister-cum-dictator and Asia’s longest serving political leader, as he battles to stem a relentlessly rising tide of anti-government action.

The protests gained additional impetus from a rolling series of strikes by the country’s 500,000 garment workers. The garment industry is essential to the country’s productivity and a huge generator of dollars. The workers’ demand for a doubling of the country’s US$ 80 per month minimum wage level to US$ 160, clearly rattled the government.

In late December, when the government offered a minimum wage of $95, there was an outcry which forced it to add another $5 per month. This was still nowhere near enough, said the garment workers unions, who duly called a nationwide strike on December 24.

It may be seen as an encouraging sign that the government is at least looking at the issue. But David Welsh, who runs workers rights group Solidarity Center in Cambodia, points out that a prolonged period of investigation would be futile; a previous working group has already conducted that research. Welsh believes that a 100 per cent increase is no more than the workers’ due, as the government has been lackadaisical in raising wages in line with inflation since 2000.

Matters came to a head on December 29 when the garment workers joined forces with opposition supporters and land rights groups in a protest march of at least 100,000 people through the streets of the capital.

That was what prompted the government to strike back ruthlessly with its one-two punch of deadly violence and arrests.

But the combination of the first real political opposition in almost three decades, plus the agitation within the country’s most important industry, appears to have given Hun Sen at least some pause for thought. Now aged 61, he has been in power for 29 years yet he has vowed to stay on until 74.

But last week, after an unusually long meeting between Hun Sen and Surya Subedi, UN special rapporteur for human rights, an aide to the PM said that formal negotiations between the opposition and the CPP will take place “as soon as possible”.

As the brutal incident of January 3 shows, Cambodians appear determined to keep exerting pressure on Hun Sen, regardless of the risk. And this time, he may even be ready to talk.

Michael Sainsbury is an Australian journalist based in Bangkok.

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