PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) has strongly condemned the conviction of NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar and eight members of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU).
The unionists were charged with ‘incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security’ under Cambodia’s Criminal Code Articles 494 and 495.
The verdict handed down by a Phnom Penh municipal court on May 25, 2023, sentenced Sithar to two years in prison, with the other union members receiving sentences of one to one and a half years, either under judicial supervision or suspended.
FORUM-ASIA has called for these convictions to be overturned, arguing that the Cambodian authorities are misusing the criminal justice system to target union leaders and labour rights advocates.
“This is yet another example of the government’s disdain for democratic principles and their attempts to silence critical voices, especially as we approach national elections,” said Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA. She has urged the Cambodian Government to immediately release Sithar.
Sithar was first arrested in January 2022 after leading a peaceful strike demanding higher wages for workers and the reinstatement of union members who had allegedly been unjustly dismissed. The authorities responded by blocking roads, forcibly removing protesters, and moving them to the city’s outskirts. Many protesters, predominantly female union members, were physically and sexually harassed during the confrontation.
Despite these challenges, Sithar continued her advocacy work, earning the prestigious Human Rights Defenders Award from the US Department of State in February 2023.
The trial, which began in January 2023, placed Sithar and her co-defendants at the centre of a tug of war between the rights of workers and the government’s efforts to maintain control.
Prosecutors argued that Sithar and the LRSU violated the law by continuing the strike even after it was declared illegal. Meanwhile, Sithar maintained that the LRSU had complied with all legal procedures, exhausting all possible mediation efforts before launching the strike.
This verdict, according to FORUM-ASIA, exemplifies the erosion of civic space and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, setting a disturbing precedent for activists, human rights defenders, and independent media. The verdict also undermines the right of workers to organise, bargain collectively, and protest.
Bacalso has called upon the Cambodian Government to uphold the country’s constitution, which guarantees the right to protest, the freedoms of association, expression, peaceful assembly, press, and publication.
FORUM-ASIA stands in solidarity with Sithar and her co-defendants and calls on the Cambodian authorities to respect the workers’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
The organization also urges the Cambodian government to refrain from its growing campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians, and media workers and to desist from levelling the charge of ‘incitement to commit a felony’ against trade unionists.