Rong Chhun speaking at a demonstration

The International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and Education International have called for the release of Cambodian trade union leader Rong Chhun, who went on trial on Friday 19 January.

Rong Chhun is President of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions. He was arrested and charged with “incitement” after 30 police officers entered his home in Phnom Penh last August.

The ITUC reports that Rong was targeted for speaking about Cambodian farmers, who have lost land to Vietnam at the border. He spoke about the controversial topic in an interview with Radio Free Asia. The Cambodian Government finds the subject sensitive and accused him of spreading false claims at the time.

Rong is being tried during a period of increased authoritarianism by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Sen Hun. Hun, who has been in power since 1985, used the Covid-19 pandemic to declare a state of emergency last year, granting his government extreme powers over surveillance and freedom of speech.

Human Rights Watch (HWU) in its World Report 2021 reported that 60 journalists, activists, and political opponents were detained in Cambodia in the past year.

Violence and threats against trade unionists and activists are also common. The ITUC also said one former union leader was beaten by a gang in Phong Phen, after visiting Rong in prison. The Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner says one woman was detained after leaving its office in the capital last year. The office also says, individuals report receiving phone calls telling them to stop their activism or they will be killed.

Trade unionists, environmental activists, and members of the banned opposition, Cambodian Rescue Party, are currently detained or on trial in Cambodia.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said in a statement:

The arrest of Rong Chhun, and the detention of more than 20 other rights activists in Cambodia, is a blatant case of repression of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

And it’s not just the ITUC and Education International saying that. Six United Nations special rapporteurs have intervened in the case, the UN High Commission For Human Rights is seriously concerned and 5,876 people have joined the LabourStart campaign demanding freedom for the union leaders.

Rong Chhun’s nephew told Radio Free Asia (RFA) last week that his uncle in good mental and physical health. “My uncle remains courageous, resolute and strong. He maintains his position that he did nothing illegal, as charged by the court,” Rong Vichea told RFA.  He went on to stress the importance of uniting in response to increased suppression.

Rong’s case was heard on January 15, along with that of three political dissidents. All four cases have been adjourned until Wednesday 3 February.

Last year, the European Union partially withdrew special trade privileges from Cambodia in response to rights violations. Meanwhile in 2019, the UK government committed to maintain free trade with the country after Brexit.

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