OPINION: Coronavirus/COVID-19: A Major Test for Cambodia’s Leadership

AKP Phnom Penh, April 08, 2020 —

So far, no-one in Cambodia has died of COVID-19, although confirmed cases have reached 117, including 63 recovered, thanks to the country’s leadership.

This South East Asian nation, however, sees this trend as a challenge, which requires the government to develop a legal instrument to help combat the spread of the virus if a worst scenario emerges.

“Very slim chance of imposing the state of emergency”.

The Royal Government of Cambodia last week approved a draft law on the state of emergency, in the unlikely event it becomes necessary.

The draft was sent to the legislative body, the National Assembly, for approval. It will then be sent to the Senate and Constitutional Council for final legal review before His Majesty the King signs and proclaims the promulgation.

Prime Minister Hun Sen told a news conference on April 7 that although the law will probably be in place after the Khmer New Year (April 13 to 15) but the chances of implementing it are “very slim, as low as 0.1 percent”, because the government takes very serious consideration of all aspects involved, such as the country’s economy.

“That is why Cambodia did not shutdown factories and markets,” he said.

The bill consists of 11 articles and five chapters.

Article 3 says that, a state of emergency can be declared when the people face dangers, such as war or foreign invasion, public health concerns caused by pandemics, serious chaos affecting national security and public order, and severe calamity.

In short, unless the situation spins out of control the government will not declare a state of emergency.

“Strong domestic leadership, Self-reliance approaches”.

The disease, however, has already shaped the country’s leadership’s response to the issue.

The Premier said that the problem prompted the government to cut as much as US$918 million from the 2020 national budget and save it for combating COVID-19.

More than US$11 million has been raised to cope with virus. Cambodia’s leaders called on its authority at all levels to provide rice and other items for the poor, although the government cannot afford to cover everyone who suffers from the effects of the virus spreading, so that no-one is left behind or dies of starvation.

The virus also impacted a great deal on the country’s industry, trade and service, he said, which prompted the government to encourage its people to invest in agriculture as a substitution so that they can be self-reliant in the event of the worst situation happening.

The Premier said that Cambodia’s Ministry of Health needs to sign a deal with local producers of alcohol and masks so that Cambodia does not have to worry about the shortage of these essential and strategic supplies.

More than 100 factories in Cambodia shut down on April 6, 2020 due to lack of raw materials and purchasing orders from overseas which did not honour agreements they inked with manufacturers, he explained.

“Cambodia’s export market is facing difficulties because the U.S. and EU face economic problems with the virus,” he said.

PM Hun Sen asked overseas-based Cambodians, wherever they worked, and lived to stay there instead of returning to Cambodia at this time of hardship as this will partially help to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Ban the imported case of the virus”

PM Hun Sen noted that most infected persons are among those, including western tourists, who travelled from abroad, and this has prompted the government to ban people travel from infected countries.

The government’s key approach is to prevent the spread of the virus in the community. As of now, there has been no reports of such spreading in any community but between individuals.

At the news conference, he said that he had to ban 150 Cambodians, mostly workers in Malaysia from returning home this week. “I asked them to stay there for the time being since I do not want to see another imported case of the virus from Malaysia to Cambodia. We do not know who has contracted the virus,” he said.

However, PM Hun Sen allowed the Malaysian plane to fly to Cambodia with no passengers and carry Malaysians and foreigners from Phnom Penh to Malaysia.

He recalled that Cambodia had a bad experience when more than 70 Cambodian Muslims attended a religious congregation in Kuala Lumpur last month and some of them contracted the virus and spread it in Cambodia on their returns.

“No holidays, ban gathering during Khmer New Year”

The Premier said that the government has cancelled Khmer New Year celebrations and got officials and workers to work to help prevent the spread of the virus. The government will compensate them for their days-off when the situation has eased.

The Premier hoped the virus will be over in July this year, “if not we will have to continue to restrict travelling so that we can prevent the spread of the virus from the capital to countryside and vice-versa”.

It is clear that the Premier got the officials and workers to work because he does not want them to join the large-scale gatherings during New Year celebrations.

At one point the Premier told the news conference that, “I do not want to see people after enjoying the new year celebrations, followed by the funeral ceremony”.

“Reaffirm Cambodia’s friendly foreign policy amid COVID-19”

Despite some criticisms of the government over the Prime Minister’s move of visiting China and allowing the docking of the cruiseship Westerdam cruise carrying more than 2,000 tourists at Cambodia’s deep sea port of Sihanoukville in February, PM Hun Sen’s diplomatic moves remain calm, mature, and strong thanks to his old-hand political experience since the Cold War era in the 1980s.

He reaffirmed that Cambodia’s foreign policy is still friendly to all and that the virus will never shaped Cambodia’s diplomacy to change its course.

“Some criticised me for hosting joint Cambodia-China’s military exercise. Now I welcome any foreign military who want to conduct joint exercises in Cambodia but they have to go through medical checkups. U.S. military personnel will require medical check-up, such as COVID-19, the way we treated China recently. I do not take anyone as the enemy”.

He said that China sent both military and civilian medical experts to support Cambodia. Beijing also helped Italy, France, and Spain, why not Cambodia?

PM Hun Sen has asked Cambodia’s Minister of Health to get 50 more ventilators from China because China provided 1,000 ventilators to the U.S.

“I believed that the great friend of China will not leave Cambodia behind”.

“I do not pick among superpowers such as China, EU, or USA since I am friends to everyone except any state that is created by state secession,” said the Premier, referring to Kosovo, which has declared its independence from Serbia.

“Cambodia does not recognise Kosovo although Kosovo is not our enemy and we do not establish diplomatic relations with Kosovo,” said the Premier.

“The U.S. can propose joint military exercises with Cambodia and U.S., will cover the bills. Other countries can do the same to me. Such joint military exercises will not require the National Assembly’s approval”.

“Cambodia, however, wants to see the type of military exercise, such as anti-terrorism, natural disaster, rescue, but not in the form of military ambushes/fighting,” he said.

“So, do not make any more excuses that Cambodia does not welcome the U.S. Cambodia welcomes the U.S. and others,” said the Premier, referring to U.S. and its allies which criticised Cambodia for using the law of state of emergency as a restriction of Cambodia’s freedom.

By Ek Tha

Spokesman of the Council of Ministers

Standing Vice-Chairman of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit