Imprisoned Union Leader Scoops Human Rights Defender Award

Union leader Chhim Sithar has become the first Cambodian to receive the US Embassy’s Human Rights Defender award for fearlessly leading peaceful protests at NagaWorld
NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The U.S. Department of State has named labor union leader Chhim Sithar as one of 10 recipients worldwide of its annual Human Rights Defender Award.

Sithar is the award's first recipient from Cambodia, the US Embassy said in a statement, adding that the distinguished award honors those who show bravery and leadership in promoting and defending widely acknowledged human rights and fundamental freedoms.

She is head of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld Resort and Casino.

“Since late 2021, Sithar has led NagaWorld employees in a non-violent strike to seek higher wages and the restoration of hundreds of union members who believe they were wrongly fired, including nearly a dozen union leaders who face criminal charges related to the strike,” the embassy said.

It added that despite physical harassment and her arrest in January 2022 at the NagaWorld strike, Sithar remained unwavering in her commitment to speak out about labor rights.

After authorities released Sithar, she was arrested again in November 2022 for allegedly violating her bail by traveling abroad to a trade union conference.

The embassy said she remains in jail pending trial, which has not yet been scheduled. She was unable to travel to Washington to join her fellow awardees.

Currently, a dozen or so union presidents are being investigated for their involvement in the strike, the embassy said.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, applauded Sithar’s recognition as a 2022 Human Rights Defender.

“She is a courageous and tenacious labor union leader who peacefully advocates for the rights of Cambodian workers,” Murphy said.

Pav Sina, President of Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said many union leaders currently face a similar situation due to litigation and demands for pay rises.

The union leader said he always defends the rights of workers and union members. He noted that because the strike is ongoing, union activists frequently face legal action.

"As the representative of any union, not only Sithar, I support and promote it as long as it [the awards] is founded on the idea of representing the actual workers and working for the workers. Therefore, the award represents the embassy's viewpoint, I am not jealous."

Sina added that he supports all incentives, not just the US Embassy but civil society organizations as well, for encouraging individuals and institutions advocating for workers' rights, freedom, and peaceful advocacy.

Phay Siphan, government spokesperson, said giving the award is the right of the organizers and it is not related to the government and courts.

“It is the right of the award owner, but the duty of the government is to maintain political stability for the national interest and economic growth,” Siphan told Kiripost.

He added, “Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel peace award, however, she does not follow policies and principles that have been revoked, so there is nothing permanent, and it is the intention of the owners that nothing affects the policies and actions of the government and the courts.”

“Although the judiciary is an independent institution, no one can violate the justice process or the court's decision. As for the government's stance, there is no impact and no jurisdiction to evaluate the quality of the award. We do not have an opinion,” Siphan​ said.