NagaWorld Union Boss Receives Global Human Rights Defender Award While Jailed in Cambodia

Cambodia has promised to take human rights more seriously, but certain actions, like the continued imprisonment of Chhim Sithar, call into question its commitment. Sithar is the leader of a union representing workers at Cambodian casino NagaWorld, and her humanitarian efforts have led to her receiving recognition from the US State Department.

NagaWorld protestors hold signs supporting jailed union leader Chhim Sithar
NagaWorld protestors hold signs supporting jailed union leader Chhim Sithar
NagaWorld protestors hold signs supporting jailed union leader Chhim Sithar. The US State Department awarded her its Human Rights Defender Award this week. (Image: Camboja News)

When thousands of NagaWorld employees began their strike in December 2021, Sithar was there. She and the workers staged their protest to try to convince NagaWorld to reinstate hundreds of employees it had let go.

Only a few weeks later, Cambodian police got involved, arresting Sithar and other union leaders for “disturbing the peace” during the peaceful demonstrations. Although they let her go, they arrested her again last November, and she remains in jail today.

Employee Crisis Becomes Human Crisis

Police re-arrested Sithar after she returned from a human rights conference in Australia. The government argued that she was on parole from the previous arrest and wasn’t allowed to leave the country.

When her lawyer asked for proof of the terms of her parole, the government refused to provide any documentation. It accuses her of “incitement,” and “disturbing the peace,” keeping her locked up as it determines what to do next. The maximum penalty for the charge is five years in jail.

Supporters of the protestors, as well as the US government and the United Nations (UN), have argued that Cambodia is using scare tactics to end the strike. They accuse the government of colluding with NagaCorp, the casino’s owner, to squash the strike by any means necessary. The government has gone as far as to set up blockades to prevent workers from accessing the area of the strike. It has also frequently arrested striking workers and held them in jail cells, where the employees allege they were abused.

Cambodia asserts that the strike is illegal. This is despite the fact that it signed the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Human Rights Declaration in 2012. Among other things, the UN-led agreement specifically authorizes the right to peaceful assembly.

Since the strike began, NagaWorld has reportedly settled its dispute with 255 former employees by offering deals. As of last week, the remaining 118 are holding out. In addition, it doesn’t look like Cambodia plans on releasing Sithar anytime soon.

Highlighting the Hypocrisy

On one hand, Cambodia asserts that it supports human rights. However, it condemns them on the other. As a result, the US State Department is hoping it can shed light on the situation. It awarded Sithar its Human Rights Defender Award this past Wednesday.

Sithar was one of 10 winners of the award, which goes to those who show “leadership and courage while promoting and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms; countering and exposing human rights abuses by governments and businesses,” according to the Department of State.

The Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), which has been following the strike and Sithar’s treatment closely, welcomed the announcement. The executive director of the organization, Jennifer Rosenbaum, said in a statement that the GLJ-ILRF will continue to fight against the union leader’s incarceration. It will also continue to work alongside the union and the NagaWorld employees to campaign for better treatment.

Cambodia released a statement about the award, as well, although it only reinforced the government’s inadequacies toward human rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said in a statement that the award should be given to those who advocate for “peace, national harmony, and reconciliation,” as long as they don’t do it by breaking the law.

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