Cambodia lashed out at the United States for giving a human rights defender award to a union leader involved in a labor strike by casino workers demanding better wages and working conditions, saying the move honored “a law-breaking person.”
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday recognized Chhim Sithar, the arrested head of a union representing employees at the NagaWorld Resort and Casino in the capital Phnom Penh, as one of 10 individuals deserving of the Global Human Rights Defender Award.
The annual award aims to recognize leadership and courage while promoting and defending human rights and exposing rights abuses by governments and businesses.
“The move of the Department of State does not represent a genuine wish of the majority of the Cambodian people as it emboldens certain forces who readily exploit the situation for their hidden agenda,” the Cambodian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued Thursday.
Chhim Sithar’s arrest reflects Cambodian authorities’ intensifying crackdown on labor activists, human rights activists and political opponents under the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years.
Police initially arrested Chhim Sithar in December 2021, charging her with “inciting social chaos” for leading a strike at the casino. The workers had demanded higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired.
Released on bail, Chhim Sithar was arrested again on Nov. 26, 2022, after returning to Cambodia from a labor conference in Australia, allegedly for violating bail conditions that apparently restricted her from leaving the country.
Ros Sotha, executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, told Radio Free Asia that Chhim Sithar was recognized for her nonviolent activism, and that the government must respect human rights.
“If it fails to restore human rights, it will affect other government sectors and finally affect the government’s reputation among the people and the international community,” he said.
NagaWorld union member Chan Sreyroth said she was pleased that Chhim Sithar received the award, and hoped that it might push the Cambodian government to resolve the labor dispute.
Ou Tep Phallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said the award was a recognition of Chhim Sithar’s bravery.
“The award is an encouragement for activists to know that if you are doing something correctly, the world will recognize you,” she said.
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