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Detention of Activists of Little Benefit to Authorities, Labor Advocate Says

Protesters hold banner printed with detained activist Vorn Pao in front of the Appeals Court during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, March 24, 2014. The protesters demanded the release of the 21 anti-government demonstrators, including Vorn Pao, who were arrested during a crackdown on a labor protesting in January. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Cambodian activists demonstrated in Phnom Penh on Friday, calling for the release of 21 detained labor activists who were arrested in January.

Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, told “Hello VOA” Thursday that the arrests were proving of little benefit to authorities, and had caused widespread condemnation.

The detentions instead called attention to the government’s failure to raise wages and allow “workers to survive with dignity,” he said. “The government itself cannot fulfill its obligations when the people make demands, but the government has detained them to today.”

Twenty-three people were arrested in broad sweeps during violent crackdowns on labor protests in January that left at least four people dead and dozens injured. Two were subsequently released, but the other 21 have remained in jail, despite public and international condemnation. Companies that source goods from Cambodia have also called for fair treatment of workers and better wages.

All told, the detention could affect trade relations between Cambodia and bigger companies, Moeun Tola said.

The 21 detainees are apparently being held as a warning against further protests, he said. But after the Khmer New Year in April, workers will again open their demands for a higher minimum wage, up to $160 per month. That will lead into a May 1 demonstration, he said.

Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said authorities were unfairly blaming workers for taking part in opposition rallies—even though they have the right to.

“The participation of the workers with the [Cambodia National Rescue Party] was not political,” he said. “But the party’s policies support the workers to increase the minimum wage.”
The government should now release the 21 activists, and reopen talks about the minimum wage, he said.