Prime Minister Hun Sen has spent more than $3.5 million over the past 10 months in cash handouts to garment workers at weekly meetings that were seen as unofficial campaign events by his critics.
Since August last year, Hun Sen has spoken to large gatherings of garment workers 49 times, with an estimated 700,000 workers attending the speeches, according to the government.
At each event, the premier’s team handed out about $5 to each attendee, making the total sum in the region of $3.5 million, according to the government’s figures.
During the meetings, Hun Sen spoke on wide-ranging topics, including political issues and the activities of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party, but stopped short of an outright call for the workers to vote for the CPP in next month’s election.
At the final scheduled meeting on Wednesday, Hun Sen said: “I will continue to conduct the meetings for the next 10 years, but if on July 29 the Cambodian People’s Party loses the election, I will not be prime minister and will not have a chance to be with you.”
At the events, Hun Sen has been photographed hugging and kissing garment workers, with the photos later circulated on social media.
Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, confirmed that the funds distributed to the garment workers were sourced from the national budget.
Following the 2013 election, in January 2014, at least five people were gunned down by Hun Sen’s security forces amid violent strikes at garment factories in Phnom Penh.
Meas Nee, a social researcher, said the CPP was “well aware of the worker’s feelings” and that the meetings were evidence the party was attempting to improve its image with the key voter demographic.
He added that paying the workers to attend the meetings demonstrated an unfair use of state funds in support of the ruling party.
But Eysan claimed the gift-giving, which in many societies would be seen as an outright bribe, was considered “an act of generosity” and warned critics of the policy that their criticism would be considered “an act of rebellion”.
Garment workers were generally thought to be firmly in support of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2013 and central to the CNRP’s victory in so many urban constituencies, helping the party to its large minority of seats in parliament.
The success of the CNRP caused great concern for the CPP, who has ruled Cambodia for almost 40 years in one form or another. Last November, the CPP-aligned Supreme Court ordered the CNRP dissolved on conspiracy charges, without providing evidence to support the CPP’s claims.