Cambodia’s NagaWorld Resort Jailed Union Boss Receives Human Rights Award

Posted on: February 3, 2023, 10:47h. 

Last updated on: February 15, 2023, 05:43h.

Chhim Sithar, the leader of a union representing casino workers at NagaWorld, recently received recognition from the US State Department for her humanitarian efforts in Cambodia. Sithar currently remains in jail for charges of disturbing the peace.

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)

Sithar was arrested last November after she returned from a human rights conference in Australia. The Cambodian government asserts that she was on parole from the previous arrest and wasn’t allowed to leave the country.

The government refused to provide any documentation when her lawyer asked for proof of the terms of her parole. 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.

Claims of parole stem from Sithar’s arrest in December 2021. During that time, thousands of NagaWorld employees staged a protest to convince NagaWorld to reinstate hundreds of employees.

Several weeks later, Cambodian police arrested Sithar and other union leaders for “disturbing the peace” during the demonstrations. She was released from jail a short time later.

Employee Crisis Becomes Human Crisis

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, despite signing 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

The US State Department awarded Sithar its Human Rights Defender Award this past Wednesday. The award recognizes 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.

Sithar was one of 10 winners.

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.

The Cambodian 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.