In Cambodia, pressure mounts on a longtime leader

In Cambodia, pressure mounts on a longtime leader
Cambodia National Rescue Party
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), its supporters and now garment workers on rallies and marches of tens of thousands of people in the past two weeks.

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian garment factory workers Then Any and Vong Pov aren't showing up for work anymore. They make pairs of jeans sold in American stores at prices per pair higher than their $80 monthly income and struggle to make ends meet.

It sounds like an all-too familiar story of labour disputes in one of Asia's poorest countries, but this time it's different. Their strike has taken on a new significance and is presenting a rare challenge to one of the world's longest-serving leaders, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The pair are just 18 and have only basic education, but are among 350,000 new and powerful allies of a political opposition seeking a re-run of a July election they say was stolen from them by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Huddled behind barbed wired fences and stared down by riot police outside Hun Sen's offices are hundreds of factory workers demanding a doubling of wages and threatening to shut down roads and cripple an industry worth $5 billion a year. "I can't feed myself," said Then Any, as workers hurled water bottles towards police lines.

Vong Pov added: "Factories must give us a raise, otherwise, we will strike continuously."

Instrumental in courting support of disgruntled workers who make clothes and footwear for brands like Adidas, Gap and Nike is Sam Rainsy, whose once-impotent party reinvented itself this year to tap resentment and present Hun Sen with an unprecedented electoral challenge.

Rainsy has led the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), its supporters and now garment workers on rallies and marches of tens of thousands of people in the past two weeks, demanding Hun Sen agree to a new election after he rejected calls for an independent probe into results of the July poll.

Protests of this scale are rarely seen in Cambodia, where despite his authoritarianism, the self-styled "strongman" has steered the country from a failed state to an unprecedented spell of stability and growth after civil war and the horrors of the 1970s Khmer Rouge "killing fields" rein of terror.

"This is about the incapability of the ruling CPP, the people want them out," top CNRP member Yim Sovann told Reuters. "We have no other options other than to demand for the election reforms and another election."

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