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Hun Sen under pressure as unrest grows in Cambodia

Publication Date : 27-12-2013


Cambodian garment workers unhappy with a minimum wage increase that fell far short of demands have taken to the streets of Phnom Penh, joining tens of thousands of opposition supporters protesting against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The government announced on Tuesday that the garment sector's minimum wage would go up to US$95 from $80 next April, the first step in a five-year plan to eventually raise the minimum wage to US$160 by 2018.

But the 19 per cent increase fell far short of the $65 increase demanded by unions.

The workers' actions since Tuesday have threatened to feed into the unrest that erupted after a bitterly divisive election earlier this year.

Hun Sen, who remains confident that the situation is under control, is visiting his country's neighbour and old ally Vietnam this week.

More than 10,000 garment factory workers joined the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in protests in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.

Many thousands more went on strike at factories across the country to protest against the US$15 rise that they saw as inadequate.

The CNRP, whose 30,000-strong rally on the streets of the capital on Sunday is believed to be the biggest protest against Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), has been quick to support the garment workers' demands.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy promised to deliver a "tsunami" of opposition to Hun Sen.

The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, meanwhile, urged members to stop operations for a week. Part of the reason, reports said, is the fear that "agitators" would cause damage to factories to force them to close. The garment sector, which employs half a million workers, is Cambodia's biggest export earner, accounting for 12 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2011.

Cambodia has seen vigorous economic growth with per capita income expected to reach $1,036 this year, according to Hun Sen. But while a well-connected business-political elite has grown wealthy, the bulk of the population remains poor.

In the July election, the CPP won only 68 seats, down from 90 in the previous election in 2008. Analysts said the swing against the party was led by a younger generation of social media-savvy voters who are disenchanted with Hun Sen's strong grip on Cambodian politics, which he has dominated for more than 20 years.

The CNRP has since accused the CPP of rigging the election.

Hun Sen is in Vietnam this week after a visit earlier this month to Japan, where he secured $133 million in new loans and pledged to upgrade ties with Japan to a "strategic partnership".

But the prime minister is facing mounting pressure at home as the CNRP-led protests show no signs of abating. Addressing calls for fresh elections last Friday, he said this was not allowed under the Constitution.

But analysts such as Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales say a snap election would be possible if the government collapsed. Thus far, there is little sign of that happening. In a statement last Friday, 54 CPP lawmakers said they fully supported what Hun Sen said, which is "no new elections, no stepping down".

However, the outcome of the July election has signalled that there may be limits to the future rule of Hun Sen, 61. In the short term, there are also risks as the protests continue and the number of protesters grow, raising the possibility of violence.

Chea Vannath, an independent analyst, was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post on Thursday as saying that the CNRP was playing a very risky game in merging its protests with those of the garment workers.

"I think the timing is not good... and it could become chaotic," she warned.

In a telephone interview, Thayer said: "The government has acted with extraordinary restraint. I don't see a tipping point yet, but it will be very serious if Sam Rainsy and the CNRP provoke bloodshed."


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