Cambodia is back in the headlines, for the wrong reasons: The undeclared war between the two ruing parties that had been simmering below the surface for months has ended up in a coup d'etat, putting a halt to the development of the emerging independent trade union movement.
Brussels, September 17 1997 (ICFTU OnLine): Sam Han, a textile factory in Phnom Penh belonging to South Korean investors, is a perfect illustration of the problems encountered by independent trade unions in Cambodia. A group of sixty workers met on March 2, 1997, to set up a democratically run trade union.
Their problems began immediately, with administrative difficulties created by the ministries of both Labour and Justice. The leaders were then dismissed on a flimsy pretext. They did succeeded, on July 2, however, in organising a strike of 1,500 Sam Han workers. On July 4, after two days of the stoppage, management agreed to meet trade union representatives and a collective agreement was signed. It didn't last long.
The following day Hun Sen took power and the factory closed for five days. When it reopened, on July 10, the management called the staff to a meeting. "We have been sent by Hun Sen, who is now in power" stated the bosses. They no longer recognised the union, refused to apply the collective agreement and dismissed the three leaders who had played the most active role in the strike: Nin Sopheap, Thaong Sovanphalla and Chim Sokhandara. They now fear for their lives.
Cambodia is finding it difficult to lay its old demons to rest. After 20 years of war, the country had returned to a sort of peace after the 1993 elections, organised under the auspices of the United Nations. The loser, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), led by the Prime Minister under Vietnamese occupation, Hun Sen, refused to leave office. The coalition he formed with the winning party, the Funcinpec led by Prince Ranariddh, son of King Sihanouk, was no love match. For the UN it was a case of saving face by putting all its weight behind the formation of this government, going against common sense, in order to show the world that the intervention of the blue berets did not always result in failure. Since then, the international community has struggled to maintain the fragile balance, going so far as to finance half the Cambodian State budget.
Little by little, life returned to normal in Cambodia. A few companies were created and foreign investors began to show an interest, attracted by the derisory cost of local labour. The textile sector grew quickly in the country, exploiting to the full its workers, who began to organise. In addition to the Cambodian Federation of Trade Unions (CAFTU), created in 1979 by the communist government, several unions have been created since the beginning of this year.
Ou Mary, a worker in a textile factory, created the "Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia" (FTUWKC) with the aid of the leader of the principal opposition party and former Finance Minister, Sam Rainsy. The CPP reacted by creating the "Cambodian Union Federation" (CUF). There were attempts by independent trade unions to organise in several companies.
The coup d'etat by the second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has radically changed the nature of the problem for the labour movement. Now only trade unions close to the CPP can operate "freely", or in other words reflect the views of the new authorities.
The FTUWKC lost its leading lights: Sam Rainsy was abroad during the bloody takeover at the beginning of July and Ou Mary fled the country. Both remain in exile. The other trade union leaders are in hiding or keeping a low profile, following the scores of arrests and "disappearances" after the coup d'etat. As for the independent trade unions, there are almost none to speak of.
At first, the international community unanimously condemned Hun Sen's coup. His military victory however has made the Asean countries think twice, their main concern being to ensure stability in the region. They are taking a more and more open attitude to the new regime. Foreign investors however will not be hurrying to return.
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