Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday appointed the chiefs of the national police, military police, and military to the government’s Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations of All Targets, which is tasked with dealing with protests.
The decision, which came the same day as senior government ministers met with global clothing brands H&M, Gap, and Puma over the lethal repression of a strike by garment workers last month, will bring the size of the committee to 49.
Among the new members of the reshuffle of the protest committee, which previously only featured lower-ranking representatives of the various armed forces, will be Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun, National Military Police commander Sao Sokha, and National Police chief Neth Savoeun.
Hun Maneth, who is Mr. Hun Sen’s son and the head of the Ministry of National Defense’s counter-terrorism department; El Vansarath, secretary of state at the Defense Ministry; and Hing Bun Heang, who is RCAF deputy commander-in-chief and commander of Mr. Hun Sen’s Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, will also now be on the committee.
General Saroeun, the commander-in-chief of RCAF, declined to comment on what role he would play on the protest committee.
“I told you to just look at the new list. Why are you asking me more questions?” he said, before hanging up.
General Bun Heang, commander of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, also declined to comment.
General Sokha, commander of the National Military Police, said he was unsure what role he would play in his new position.
“I don’t have the decision letter in my hand so I don’t know what it talks about,” he said. “I can talk after I see it.”
Military Police armed with AK-47s were deployed to a protest by striking garment factory workers on January 3. The forces shot dead five people and injured more than 40, sending the garment workers back to work.
Soldiers from an elite unit of RCAF had the day before broken up a protest by striking workers elsewhere in Phnom Penh.
Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training who retained his position on the committee in the reshuffle, said that Mr. Hun Sen’s changes were not cause for concern.
“This committee [exists] to implement enhancing, effective work to properly improve our national society,” Mr. Mean said.
“We will not use armed forces against protesters, despite the government including police and military police on the committee but we will seek out strong efforts to solve these problems so that strikes are not allowed to reach violence.”
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong, who is one of the new civilian members of the committee, along with Council of Ministers Secretary of State Svay Sitha and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, said a desire to maintain order had driven the change.
“The government reshuffled and included some new components in order to solve problems when strikes and demonstrations happen, and we will also maintain security,” Mr. Socheatvong said.
Chuon Mom Thol, who is a member of the committee and the president of the Cambodian Union Federation, which is aligned with the ruling CPP, applauded the new composition of the committee.
“The government reshuffled and created the new committee because they wanted to strengthen their work and take action against protesters,” Mr. Mom Thol said.
“We must implement the law strictly for illegal strikes and demonstrations, and we will bring the inciters to court to accept responsibility before the law if they lead illegal strikes and demonstrations.”
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, also said the move was a positive sign from the government.
“It’s a good sign that the heads of the various armed forces are now direct members of the committee,” he said. “The Labor Ministry only has jurisdiction over the Labor Law. The police and other armed forces are responsible for maintaining public order, and when a strike moves out of the factory into a public place, you need them control law and order.”
Twenty-one protesters remain incarcerated at a high-security prison in Kompong Cham province after being beaten and arrested by military and military police while taking part in last month’s strike by garment workers.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, which took part in leading the nationwide strike last month and has called for another next month, said the move was part of an ongoing program to scare garment workers.
“This is a new government measure to break the spirit of workers,” he said. “The committee is a strong obstruction for the workers, because the influence of the armed forces will cause them…to not dare to protest to demand to raise their wages.”
Garment factory unions rejected a decision late last year to increase their basic monthly wage from $80 to $95—and later to $100—taking to the streets to call for $160.
The campaign dovetailed with demonstrations being held by the opposition CNRP in Phnom Penh, which saw tens of thousands of people march through the streets, before the government repressed the dissent and placed a ban on public gatherings.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)
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