Cambodian poll protesters joined by workers again

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian anti-government protesters on Sunday staged their largest daily protest to demand new elections, beginning a third week of demonstrations with their numbers buoyed by thousands of factory workers seeking higher wages.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, led a massive four-hour march through Phnom Penh, the capital, in the group's latest effort to try to dislodge Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won elections in July that extended his 28-year rule, but his opponents accuse him of rigging the vote. The opposition made an unexpectedly strong showing, capturing 55 National Assembly seats to the ruling party's 68.

The opposition lawmakers refused to take their seats, demanding an investigation into alleged election irregularities. The government refused to set up an independent inquiry, and now the opposition wants new elections.

The protests expanded this past week when workers from garment factories joined the anti-government demonstrators, adding their own demand for a higher minimum wage.

The garment industry employs more than 500,000 people and is Cambodia's biggest export earner. The workers are demanding a monthly salary of $160, up from their current minimum of $80. Many of them have been striking for several months.

While the turnout for Sunday's march and accompanying rally was hard to estimate — organizers made apparently inflated claims of up to 1 million people — the numbers were among the largest ever seen at a Cambodian political event. Sam Rainsy told the crowd that it had "written a new page in Cambodian history."

Hun Sen is a tough and wily leader who has staved off decades of challenges, with force when necessary. Sunday's protest was peaceful.

The prime minister said earlier this month that he would not resign and call early elections.

Sam Rainsy's opposition party has long and close links with most of the unions representing garment workers. Most of Cambodia's 500 garment factories have been closed since Thursday, when the manufacturers association urged its members to cease operations, citing a fear of violent strikes.