Reference ID: 06PHNOMPENH1199
Created: 2006-06-28 13:30
Released: 2011-08-30 01:44
Origin: Embassy Phnom Penh
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #1199/01 1791330
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 281330Z JUN 06
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6957
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHXI/LABOR COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 1501
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 PHNOM PENH 001199
STATE FOR EAP, EAP/MLS, DRL/IL--MARK MITTELHAUSER, AND
EAP/TPP/ABT THOMAS LERSTEN
LABOR FOR ILAB--JIM SHEA AND JONA LAI
GENEVA FOR RMA
STATE PLEASE PASS TO USTR--BARBARA WEISEL AND DAVID BISBEE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/28/2016
TAGS: ELAB ECON KTEX PGOV CB
SUBJECT: CAMBODIA: GENERAL STRIKE COULD PROVE POLITICAL,
ECONOMIC FLASH POINT
REF: PHNOM PENH 1185 AND PREVIOUS
Classified By: Pol/Econ Officer Jennifer Spande for reason 1.4 (b).
1. (C) SUMMARY. The July 3 general strike threatened by the Free Trade Union (FTU) and the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) presents an already vulnerable Hun Sen with the conundrum of choosing between support for workers or the business elite. Hun Sen realizes that only Cambodia's unions have the power to put tens of thousands of workers on the street on short notice. FTU leader Chea Mony clearly sees the threatened strike as a test of his political strength which will help determine his role in the 2007 local elections and 2008 national elections. Chea Mony may be more willing to take risks because he has been overshadowed by the high-profile assassination of his brother, union leader Chea Vichea, and the arrest of his friend and mentor, CITA union leader Rong Chhun. A general strike has the potential to turn violent and precipitate a crackdown that could threaten the political openness of the last six months. And if it lasts for more than a day or two, it may be the final push that convinces already jittery garment buyers to take their business elsewhere, shutting the doors on Cambodia's most important industry. This could potentially lead to a backlash against the ruling CPP, if the CPP permits it to happen. END SUMMARY.
Hun Sen Feeling Vulnerable
2. (C) The threatened July 3 general strike comes at a time when Hun Sen is already feeling vulnerable. The World Bank corruption scandal plays out daily in the nation's newspapers, and the circle of people implicated is ever expanding. Hun Sen jokes about the scandal both to ridicule the World Bank, whom he accuses of not sharing sufficient evidence, and to make light of the charges against his administration. It also reflects push-back from ministers who are being implicated against their will. At the same time, on-going land disputes both in Phnom Penh and in the provinces are pitting the well-connected against poor farmers, and are creating increased discontent among Hun Sen's strongest supporters--poor rural Cambodians.
3. (C) The current labor impasse presents Hun Sen with an impossible choice: workers versus the business elite. In contrast to the many human rights, health, environmental, and educational NGOs which are largely reliant on external donors for funding and direction, unions represent the largest and least foreign-influenced part of civil society in the country. Unions alone have the ability to put tens of thousands of protesters in the street on short notice, and Hun Sen knows this. On the other hand, Hun Sen is loath to alienate garment factory owners and managers, who form the backbone of the country's formal economy and are often politically well-connected. Hun Sen's studied inattention to the threatened general strike is the result of his calculated desire to avoid offending either group. Hun Sen advisor Om Yentieng told us today, perhaps disingenuously, that while the Prime Minister hopes for a peaceful resolution to the strike, he is not unduly concerned.
4. (C) Labor unrest in Cambodia often results in violence, and this general strike would prove no exception. This is even more likely if the strike progresses past the initial sit-in phase to the street demonstrations FTU leader Chea Mony has said could take place July 6 or 7.
Strike Tied to Union Leader's Political Ambitions
5. (C) For the first time in Cambodia's modern history, relative political stability has enabled politicians to start turning their attention early to local elections in 2007 and national elections in 2008. Just as Hun Sen has pushed FUNCINPEC out of the way to make room for a cozier relationship with the SRP, other political players are already working to position themselves. For pro-opposition union leaders Rong Chhun and Chea Mony, this means reaching for power in order to be a political force in the coming elections. Chea Mony has told us that the threatened general strike is a test of his ability to command workers and will
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play into his planning for the 2007 local elections.
6. (C) Chea Mony may also be looking to increase his personal political stature and may feel overshadowed by other union leaders. Chea Mony's brother, FTU President Chea Vichea, was assassinated in January 2004, leaving former chemistry teacher Chea Mony to unexpectedly inherit Vichea's mantle. Chea Vichea's assassination focused international attention on Cambodia and led to his being heralded as a worker's hero; his funeral attracted 5,000 workers. Last fall's crackdown on union and civil society leaders who criticized the border treaty with Vietnam led to the arrest of Chea Mony's friend and mentor Rong Chhun. Rong Chhun's case became an international cause celebre, and international pressure on the government increased further when an additional three leaders were arrested following a Human Rights Day celebration in December. The release of Rong Chhun and the other detainees on January 17 gave them instant credibility and public recognition. In contrast, Chea Mony was out of the country when his arrest warrant was issued, and spent several months in relative obscurity traveling in Ireland and France while trying to raise enough money to support his living expenses there. When his arrest warrant was rescinded, he returned to the country with little fanfare.
Cambodia's Biggest Industry Hangs in the Balance
7. (C) In addition to the potential political implications of a general strike, such labor unrest would hit the garment industry--which accounts for nearly half of the country's GDP and more than 80% of its exports--at an extremely sensitive time. The garment industry is continuing to consolidate its manufacturing process following the end of the Multifiber Agreement's quota system in January 2005. Cambodian garment factories are already at a disadvantage due to longer transportation times, high cost of electricity and other overhead, and lack of vertical integration. Moreover, Cambodia doesn't have the tariff-free garment entry to the US that many developing countries in Africa and the Caribbean enjoy thanks to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). Cambodia's strongest selling point is its reputation for excellent workers' rights and the existing relationships the factories have established with buyers.
8. (C) However, strikes at garment factories have been up substantially over the past six months. Strikes in May, for example, led to the loss of 87,000 working days--a figure four times what is typically seen dQng the May to September peak production season. Garment buyers are already worried that the increase in labor unrest could lead to production delays and could tarnish their reputation for good working conditions and labor relations. According to the Garment Manufacturer's Association of Cambodia (GMAC), Levi Strauss has already scaled back its planned orders in Cambodia from 13 million to 8 million pairs of jeans for 2006. Nike and Puma have reportedly shelved earlier decisions to expand purchases from Cambodia. GMAC reports that many buyers are delaying confirming orders until after July 3 to see what happens with the general strike threat.
9. (C) The danger for Cambodia is two-fold. First, a general strike--particularly one that lasts for more than a few days--could be the final push that chases garment buyers out of Cambodia and in to the waiting arms of China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and other countries. If this were to happen and the CPP were perceived as responsible for letting it occur, there could be a strong voter backlash against the CPP in the upcoming elections. Second, if the strike were to take a violent turn, it would likely be met with a crackdown that could turn back the democratic gains made so far this year.