Khmer Rouge trial workers strike over unpaid wages – magazine available here (app subscription)

Phnom Penh – Last year, workers in Cambodia’s economically vital garment sector, which employs 600,000 people, carried out 121 strikes, the most since records began in 2003.

From behind the wire in S-21 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
From behind the wire in S-21, the former school in Phnom Penh used as a torture centre by the Khmer Rouge (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Garments are Cambodia’s biggest export, generating revenue of US$4.6 billion last year, but a pre-election pledge by the government to raise the country’s minimum wage has not satisfied workers angered at factory conditions. This year looks set to top that bar for labour unrest. Last Thursday 4,000 workers protested in Phnom Penh against what they see as unfair dismissals of striking colleagues at a Singaporean-run factory.

But there’s another ongoing labor dispute that holds the mirror up not to Cambodia’s future, but to its troubled past.

Around 200 Cambodian staff at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the joint national-international tribunal set up to try some of the leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, have refused to work since September 2, saying that they have not been paid for three months, because the Cambodia government has failed stump up its share of the tribunal’s costs, which now face a shortfall of US$3 million.

Lars Olsen, spokesman for the ECCC, told The Edge Review that “the Cambodian government has failed its obligation to pay salary to the national staff since May, and the UN has repeatedly pressed the government to meet its legal obligation.”

The timing of the funding hold-up is strange, given that in June the Cambodian government passed a law mandating jail terms of up to two years for denying that crimes were committed by the Khmer Rouge.

That new law came about soon after opposition leader Kem Sokha mused – to the anger and astonishmsent of Khmer Rouge survivors – that the infamous S21 detention center at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, where perhaps 20,000 Cambodians were tortured before being dispatched to a grisly end at the Choeung Ek “Killing Field” outside the city, was a Vietnamese conspiracy.

Just as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party came across to some as opportunistic in passing the law so close to the election, Kem Sokha also showed a Machiavellian side – using the Khmer Rouge era to stir up anti-Vietnamese sentiment, always a potent undercurrent in Khmer society, in the run-up to the July 28 vote.

Chum Mey, a survivor of S21 who nowadays can sometimes be seen at the grim Tuol Sleng musuem, slammed Kem Sokha’s comments as electioneering.

“I think Kim Sokha wants to erase history. He wanted to gain too much for his ballot. He seemed to have no morality,” Chum Mey told The Edge Review.

With closing statements scheduled next month in the cases of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the two remaining Khmer Rouge leaders on trial, the strike, if it persists, could prevent the court proceedings going forward on time, although Olsen says that there are currently no changes planned to the court schedule.

But a composite court such as the ECCC – with hearings and witness statements sometimes in Khmer, sometimes in English, sometimes in French – needs its large team of translators and interpreters to function.

And with closing statements in the case against the two Khmer Rouge leaders set to start on October 16, the strike, if not resolved soon, could likely see yet another delay in what has been a stop-start and often fraught process to bring about justice for the almost two million killed under the four year Khmer Rouge regime.

“Repeated funding crises and political impasses between the United Nations and Cambodian government have led to trials that took too long to begin and have taken too long to complete,” says Youk Chhang, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era, who lost family members during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

Youk Chhang is the Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the single largest repository of information about those dark days in Cambodia and a vital source of information for the court.

One accused, Ieng Sary, died in March, while another, Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial due to dementia. There are concerns that the remaining two could similarly succumb – either to death or the effects of old age – before justice is done.

“After many years of awaiting the trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Cambodian survivors are now watching as their hopes of justice slip away,” Youk Chhang told The Edge Review.

But some say that the court, despite its flaws, will represent a positive legacy for Cambodia.

Elizabeth Becker, author of When The War Was Over, a history of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, told The Edge Review that the court can help Cambodia get over the Khmer Rouge era and “imagine a future of greater democracy and human rights.”

“Through the ECCC, the world has officially recognized the pain and horrors Cambodians suffered from 1975-1979. That matters.,” says Becker, one of only two foreign journalists to interview Pol Pot while he was in power.



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