Around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, striking casino workers began holding each other’s hands as they faced down a team of an estimated 100 uniformed police officers.
Already, eight workers, including senior union leaders, had been arrested that evening from their union offices.
The protesters were now being prevented from leaving an area to the west of the casinos to go home, as authorities attempted to make further arrests.
“We are holding each other’s hands to prevent them from [more] arrests,” said Re Thearath. “They’re in pursuit of arresting people who have held the microphones.”
Around 9:30 p.m., police arrested a ninth worker, Touch Sereymeas, from in front of NagaWorld 2. Sereymeas had previously been misidentified as a Japanese agent in an anonymous Facebook page widely shared through government-aligned media channels.
About 150 workers remained near the Chuon Nath roundabout.
They were wary as reporters approached. “News media have distorted us a lot, especially Fresh News. They exaggerate and we are afraid of them distorting us,” Thearath said, referring to a news website that regularly serves as a government mouthpiece.
Some workers claimed that some plain-clothed officers had joined the protest pretending to be strikers, acting erratically and violently.
Around 11 p.m., more than 100 military police officers with riot shields and truncheons arrived on military trucks. Some of the soldiers carried assault rifles.
The workers were huddled near the entrance to the Phnom Penh Center, gradually moving south on Sothearos Blvd.
“We will still continue to demand justice in front of NagaWorld,” said a protester, Chhoun Sam An, despite the night’s turmoil. “We come here to protest because of the suffering, and we come from our heart.”
At midnight the workers dispersed. They said they had been successful in preventing the arrest of a 10th worker by banding together.
NagaCorp, to which the government has given a decadeslong monopoly license to operate in the capital, fired 1,300 workers last year amid major Covid-19 disruptions. Among the workers targeted for termination, however, were all top union leaders and representatives. Workers and labor groups have argued that this amounts to illegal union busting.
Around 300 workers are still contesting their terminations and pushing for reinstatement, and at one point last week the daily protests outside the casinos swelled to around 1,000 participants. Negotiations have largely stalled.
“How can they say we do it illegally, since we follow the law and procedures,” Sam An said of the strike. Workers had informed authorities, she said — though the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has deemed it illegal. “What about NagaWorld, which breached the law and silenced the union — [let’s see] whether any ministry takes any action.”
Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet confirmed several of the arrests last night and accused the protesters of violating public order.
“The ministry has opened negotiations for a solution, and authorities had called on them not to hold an illegal demonstration but they have not listened,” Thet said. A municipal police spokesperson could not be reached on Saturday.
Chhim Sithar, the Naga union’s president who has spoken of her likely arrest, said by phone that she was in the dark about what was happening to her arrested colleagues.
“So far we haven’t gotten through them and we don’t know where they’ve taken them,” Sithar said.
But the workers had known to expect problems, she added. “Even though there were arrests, they will continue to protest until there is a solution.”
In a statement to shareholders last month, NagaCorp said casino operations would continue. “[T]he Board believes that the illegal strike has had no material negative impact on the overall business and operations of the Group.”