Across Southeast Asia, Covid-19 has dampened spirits for what is usually a joyous jubilee, with government’s putting the kibosh on large-scale festivities that usually usher in the traditional new year.
Perhaps that sombre mood is most salient in Cambodia, whose “Choul Chnam Thmey” (Enter New Year) during April 14-16 was cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country’s strongman prime minister of 35 years, was recently granted a series of draconian powers ostensibly intended to battle the viral outbreak.
The extended powers give the government full rein to monitor communications, control media and social media, inhibit the flow of any information that can cause public fear, unrest, or damage national security, and the right to seize property and enforce quarantines.
A justice ministry spokesman likened the powers to those already found “in many other democratic countries”. But Cambodia is anything but that. In his bid for absolute control, Cambodia has devolved into a de facto one-party state, with Hun Sen’s eldest son being groomed for dynastic succession. Civil rights have been trampled along the way. Media organisations have been shuttered. Critics, monks, labour activists and political opponents have been imprisoned. Hundreds of members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are on the lam in Malaysia and Thailand after being hit with fabricated charges, ringing in the new year in fear of the long arm of the Hun Sen regime. Many others who stayed put in Cambodia have likewise been forced to “go underground”.
The only modest bit of new year’s cheer is for CNRP party leader Kem Sokha, whose “trumped up” treason trial was suspended last month in the wake of Covid-19.
And yet the clampdown continues. From January to March, at least 17 people were arrested for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia, including four members or supporters of the CNRP.
Those detainees included a 14-year-old girl who took to social media to express her fears about the virus. Twelve would later be released after signing a pledge not to spread “fake news”.
But reporting the actual news can also result in arrest. On April 9, Sovann Rithy, director of the online TVFB news site, was charged with incitement to commit a felony. His crime? Posting on his Facebook page a direct quote given by Hun Sen that day, in which the prime minister said: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”
The police would later claim the prime minister was joking. But the consequences for truth telling in the country are no laughing matter.
That Hun Sen now needs expanded powers to combat the coronavirus is ironic, given that he earlier downplayed the outbreak. In January, he threatened to expel journalists from Cambodia for wearing face masks, declaring: “The prime minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?”
He would also refuse to enact travel restrictions against China as the virus raged there, while refusing to repatriate 23 Cambodian students stranded in Wuhan as a show of solidarity.
And when Cambodia began shutting out Western nationals in March as hundreds of Chinese soldiers poured in for a military training exercise, he accused critics who pointed out that inconsistency of being “ill-minded”, challenging their right to “Cambodian citizenship”.
The government has since enacted stricter inbound controls on Chinese nationals and others, although they falls short of measures seen in countries like Thailand.
So far, Cambodia has only confirmed 122 coronavirus cases and no deaths. On Wednesday, the country reported no new coronavirus cases for four days running.
Meanwhile, the government has done relatively little in terms of rolling out a public health campaign with a strong disease surveillance component. Nor has it worked to develop the necessary testing infrastructure to properly identify cases. Years of mismanagement and under-investment have left Cambodia’s public healthcare system woefully ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic.
Perhaps there’s a reason that so much more is being down to curtail the flow of information than to illuminate the real crisis being faced by Cambodians today. While painful, the government has been right to ban public gatherings, shutter schools and other entertainment venues, ban religious ceremonies and limit new year’s celebrations to family affairs. And yet cafes, restaurants, markets, and garment factories remain open.
Much more could be done to ensure social distancing and help battle the outbreak. But if Hun Sen persists in leveraging a national crisis to increase his already unchecked power, focusing more on silencing online criticism than empowering the public, this new year will be a rocky one for the Cambodian people.
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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