PHNOM PENH —
In Cambodia Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to quit. The public outpouring of sentiment in recent months against the long-time leader is unprecedented, and has brought together opposition party supporters and many of Cambodia’s 400,000-strong garment workers.
Before leading the huge march through the streets of Phnom Penh, opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the crowd at Freedom Park in the city center that this is a historic day and that the will of the Cambodian people will prevail.
Rainsy said all Cambodians believe Hun Sen’s government is illegal, adding that the prime minister would hear their voice. He said everyone wants to see a change in leadership, and he called for fresh elections.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy (white shirt, right), and deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha (left) wave to people watching the march in Phnom Penh, Dec. 29, 2013. (R. Carmichael/VOA)
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Sam Rainsy leads, stunned the ruling party in July when it came close to winning the general election. The opposition has since claimed the election was stolen.
It initially sought an independent investigation into the ballot.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen - who has been in power for nearly three decades - rejected that, and talks between the two sides quickly stagnated.
The 55 opposition MPs-elect have refused to take up their seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. They want Hun Sen to quit and a second election held next year. Hun Sen has rejected both of those demands, too.
So for the past two weeks, the opposition has staged daily rallies and marches in Phnom Penh, drawing between a few thousand supporters and - on Sunday a week ago - as many as an estimated 40,000.
The march this Sunday saw even more people turn out. Counting crowds is a notoriously tricky task, but this march was clearly much larger than last week’s. Once again, the refrain was that Hun Sen must go.
Expressing such sentiments publicly in Cambodia even a year ago would have been unthinkable, and is indicative of how far the country’s political landscape has shifted.
The opposition has been boosted by wide segments of society: from civil servants fed up with low wages, to ordinary citizens tired of corruption, Buddhist monks speaking out against the senior clergy’s coziness to the ruling party, and garment workers, angry at the government’s announcement on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage from $80 a month to just $95.
Garment workers say that is not enough - with prices in the markets rising fast, as are rents. Many are forced to work overtime simply to make ends meet.
Touch is one of the protestors demanding that the minimum wage rises to $160. The 35-year-old Touch has worked for a decade in a factory that makes jeans for Levi-Strauss. She and her husband are able to send home a small monthly sum to her parents in the village who look after their two children.
She says there are two reasons she came Sunday. One is to have the minimum wage increased to $160. The other is for Hun Sen to step down.
Cambodia’s garment industry is the country’s key foreign exchange earner - worth more than $5 billion this year, mostly in exports to the U.S. and the European Union. The sector is also Cambodia’s biggest formal employer, with 400,000 workers.
But wages have not kept pace with inflation, and over the years the industry has been hit by hundreds of strikes. Last year saw more than half a million days lost to strike action; this year will likely see one million days lost, by far the worst in its two-decade-long history.
So it was little surprise that the announcement of the $15 raise saw tens of thousands of garment workers walk out. In response the trade body that represents the factory owners advised its 470 or so members to close, citing the risk of violence. Many have done so.
Although unions affiliated to the ruling party did back the pay rise, independent unions and those linked to the opposition rejected it. On Friday, leaders of the last two groups met senior officials at the Ministry of Labor to discuss new wages terms, while 2,000 workers blocked the road outside. They failed to reach a deal and are scheduled to meet again Monday.
Touch reckons a deal is at some point inevitable - but pledges that until one is concluded, she and her fellow workers will stay on strike.
She says she expects the government will find a solution for the workers, but doesn't know how long that will take.
The opposition continues to reap political capital from the dispute over the minimum wage. Earlier this past week, Sam Rainsy told workers they should stay on strike until they get $160 a month.