Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised to take legal action against opposition leader Kem Sokha for allegedly orchestrating the 2014 Veng Sreng street protests.
Speaking to more than 10,000 garment workers yesterday during a visit to Canadia Industrial Park, Mr Hun Sen said the opposition party and a group of ill-intentioned people had “brutalised” the rights of workers by forcing them to take part in the protests.
He said the ill-intentioned people infiltrated factories and told staff to protest, even if they wanted to stay at work.
Mr Hun Sen stopped short of naming Mr Sokha, but said the man behind the protests was the opposition leader who had recently been detained in prison.
Mr Sokha was arrested on Sunday and on Tuesday charged by Phnom Penh Municipal Court with treason for conspiring with a foreign power.
Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the 2014 protests to demand a $160 minimum wage in Phnom Penh.
As the situation came to a head, the government sent armed military police to Veng Sreng street, the epicentre of the protests and a road teeming with garment factories.
According to the government, four protesters were killed and more than 40 were injured when police opened fire on rioters. But human rights officials and workers who were there that day claimed that many more were killed, but their bodies were never found.
Mr Hun Sen said the leader of the protests would face legal action for breaching the rights of workers, adding that ordinary people who joined the rallies would not be targeted.
He said those behind the demonstrations should also pay for damage caused on Veng Sreng street, asking why workers would have protested at 2am without being incited to do so.
“The real protest leader is in jail now,” Mr Hun Sen said. “We also know the identities of those who gave biscuits to the protesters at the time.”
“You should know that I know who you are, so you are not free,” he added.
The Prime Minister said the families of people missing and presumed dead following the protests should ask the opposition leader for their whereabouts, referring to the case of Khem Sophat, a 16-year-old garment worker from Svay Rieng who disappeared following the rallies.
“We had to arrest the protest leader for questioning, so we can find out where the boy went,” Mr Hun Sen said. According to an Interior Ministry report, damages to state and private property following protests “led by the opposition” in 2013 and 2014 totalled nearly $100 million.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labour rights group Central, said the facts clearly show that garment workers, not the opposition, started the Veng Sreng street protests to demand a better minimum wage.
He added that he never saw Mr Sokha join the protests.
“The CNRP just supported the idea of workers protesting for the minimum wage, so it’s really ridiculous for the government to say the opposition leader is responsible for the missing boy,” he said.
“The question is, how many people were killed by bullets from government troops? Who did the guns belong to? Who is in charge of troops when the CNRP is not even in power?”
Mr Tola said the government is only raising the issue now because it wants to destroy the opposition ahead of the national election in 2018, and is worried after heavy losses at the commune polls earlier this year.
“If they did not take action against the opposition party now, their party will have a problem at the next election,” he said.
Neither CNRP vice presidents Pol Ham or Mu Sochua could be reached for comment, nor could CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.