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Hun Sen's Cambodia

Garment workers pressured to vote in looming Cambodia elections

Voters apathetic after opposition party outlawed; turnout will hint at legitimacy

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment workers during a visit to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone.   © AP

PHNOM PENH -- With Cambodia's national elections fast approaching, garment workers who had largely backed the opposition in the last poll say they are being coerced to vote and face hostility if they abstain, as the ruling party tries to paint the ballot as democratic.

Few groups have received Prime Minister Hun Sen's attention like the 700,000-strong garment sector. Many of these workers voted for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2013 and took part in post-election protests that led to the deaths of at least five people when security forces fired into the crowds. The CNRP, the only realistic threat to Hun Sen's 33-year reign, was outlawed last year.

Now workers in the garment sector say they are being hassled by bosses to cast their votes on July 29 or face consequences. A garment worker who only wanted to be identified as Sreymom on fears for her job said a supervisor warned that factory bosses would check for evidence that staff had voted.

"I heard that we need to show the management team our fingers. If they are not inked, we will face problems," said Sreymom who voted for CNRP in 2013. "If the management tells us when to leave, I have to obey."

Despite the dissolution of the CNRP and the imprisonment of its leader, Kem Sokha, on widely discredited claims the party was attempting to wage a U.S.-backed revolution, the ruling Cambodian People's Party has been anxious to present the upcoming election as legitimate.

Fearful of a drastically lower voter turnout in comparison to the last national and community elections, Hun Sen has been making efforts to ensure Cambodians do not pay heed to a "clean fingers" campaign waged by exiled opposition figures calling for the electorate to boycott the vote. One CPP official, Ieng Mouly, has called anyone who refuses to vote a "traitor." Very few of the roughly 1.5 million Cambodian migrant workers are also expected to return home to vote.

Hun Sen has attempted to win favor with workers since the 2013 ballot with wage hikes, bonuses and free transport. The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training last month instructed factories to give workers three days off on full pay to cast their votes.

But it's not yet clear how many workers will indeed use their holiday to cast their vote for the CPP or one of 19 other minor opposition parties, some of which have been accused of being "puppet parties" of the incumbent.

Sreymom said she would return to her home province of Prey Veng on the Vietnamese border to avoid any repercussions. "I am afraid they will label me as an opposition supporter," she said. "These days, you don't want to be outspoken or in the spotlight alone. You need to follow the trend so that you are not targeted."

Bun Chanda, 30, who earns around $200 a month in a Phnom Penh factory, said the deadly crackdown on post-election protesters in January 2014 had instilled fear among garment workers.

"Since the violence in 2014, nobody dares to protest. [We are] afraid of expressing our concerns," she said. "Now we go with the wind. If the factory instructs us to show the ink, we will follow."

Yet, migrant workers who back the CNRP have not come under the same pressure.

Hang Puthea, spokesman for the National Election Committee, claimed he did not know the percentage of migrant workers who had registered to vote. In October, two weeks before registration closed, The Phnom Penh Post reported that nearly three-quarters of eligible voters had not signed up. Political analyst Meas Nee said Cambodian officials on the Thai border told him that less than 10% of migrant workers had registered to vote.

In recent months, Cambodians living in Japan, South Korea, the U.S., France and New Zealand have held demonstrations demanding the reinstatement of the CNRP. A petition with more than 12,000 signatures was delivered to the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok on Wednesday to request Tokyo withdraw its financial support for the NEC.

“Migrant Workers in Thailand, both, legal and undocumented workers showed their will via these over 12,000 signatures that they are not prepared to return home to participate in the upcoming election if the political party they love is banned from the political race,” said Mounh Sarath, CNRP public liaison officer in Bangkok, who helped deliver the petition.

Seng Bora, 40, who works as a waiter in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, said he neither had the money nor desire to return this time despite traveling to vote for the CNRP in 2013.

"Nothing will change. I am just without hope so I'd better focus on earning money from another country. It's more stable, realistic, I eat well, and can earn enough to survive. I am so sick of the election," he said. "I thought the Rescue Party would be given a chance to rescue the nation, but now it's been destroyed. What is there to do?"

Hai Sophea, 38, who has been in Thailand for a decade and works at a bakery in Chonburi province, ticked the box of the CNRP in 2013 but would not be returning this time.

"To vote for who? I expected [CNRP] would help the workers like me so I came to vote for them, but now they are completely devastated," she said.

Based on conversations with Cambodians on recent trips to Thailand, political analyst Meas Nee believes apathy toward the election is widespread among migrant workers due to the CNRP's dissolution and the high cost of returning.

"They deserve to see more changes in Cambodia," Nee said. "But also many have been closely integrated into the Thai working system so to take off three days to come for the election is not enough. For some of them that live further than Bangkok, they need almost one week."

The Ministry of Labour did not respond to a request for comment.

Mu Sochua, an exiled CNRP deputy, said the ruling party had little interest in assisting migrant workers to return for the ballot due to their widespread support for her now-defunct party.

"CPP has never cared to have them registered nor return to vote as they know they don't vote for CPP. They see CPP as having failed to address employment issue," she said, adding that the NEC had ignored requests from migrant workers to assist them in casting their vote.

Back in Pattaya, Bora said he hoped the next generation could one day enjoy greater freedoms to choose who leads the country.

"I am uneducated and I'm struggling now, but I don't want my younger generation to follow the same path I experienced," he said.

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