Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Hun Sen cancels Khmer New Year, but says no ‘emergency’ yet

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a press conference at his "Peace Palace" building in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Panha Chhorpoan

Cambodia will most likely not be placed into a state of emergency for the coronavirus using the government’s new powers, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen, but next week’s Khmer New Year holiday will be indefinitely postponed.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday morning at his “Peace Palace” office building in Phnom Penh, the prime minister said the official holiday for the new year, which falls April 13-16, would be postponed, and both public and private institutions would be expected to continue working normally.

Hun Sen said a replacement holiday would be announced later to make up for the loss. He also said that he did not expect to call on his extensive powers under the government’s new state of emergency laws anytime soon — but said there was a possibility of curfews being announced.

“I know it is not yet time to announce an emergency, but I need to have this equipment in hand when it comes to the time of an emergency, so we can announce it immediately,” Hun Sen said of the urgency in passing the laws.

Hun Sen added he had already thought extensively about using his powers and counselled people not to waste any additional time talking about it. The country had so far handled the current coronavirus crisis fairly well, he said, and placing Cambodia into an emergency state now would be overkill. 

But if people ignore advice to socially distance, wash their hands and wear masks, Hun Sen said that Cambodia could in the end be placed into a state of emergency for three months to combat the virus.

“The possibility [of using the law] is very small, but even if it is very small, we need to have the law in hand,” Hun Sen said. “Based on my experience over more than 40 years, the percentage possibility that we will announce that we are putting the country into a state of emergency is very small.”

“Only if what we are saying is not listened to, will we announce it.”

Still, to prevent a bigger crisis as people headed back to their home provinces for the Khmer New Year, the holiday would be postponed. 

“I appeal to workers and civil servants to continue to work normally, and the government will provide five days to replace the Khmer New Year holidays at an available time,” he said.

Bin Chhin, the minister in charge of the Council of Ministers, and Finance Minister Aurn Pornmoniroth would issue directives in line with this, he said.

Separately, Hun Sen said the government would start paying laid off or furloughed garment workers $40 a month, with factory owners expected to cover $30, after the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said factories were struggling to meet payroll.

Under a previous deal, owners who laid off workers due to plummeting orders agreed to pay workers a 40 percent share of the garment industry minimum monthly wage, with the government covering 20 percent more.

Ny Sokha, the head of monitoring for local rights group Adhoc, said if the government did not in fact plan to use the state of emergency laws for the present threat of coronavirus, it was odd they were fast-tracking the law.

The law gives the government extensive powers to prevent people from gathering, travelling, criticizing authorities or sharing news, and includes vague provisions that would allow people to be jailed for up to 10 years.

“If this law is not yet approved, I request that the government ought not to be sending this law [through the processes] so fast and the government should instead be discussing this law in more detail,” Sokha said.

He added the government — if it sees a threat of contagion with new year travel — should also consider garment workers forced to continue working next week amid their own fears: “I do not reject the government’s measures, but the government should be implementing these measures equally.”

Meas Nee, a prominent social analyst, added that he believed the government had no option to enact a state of emergency now because so many people relied on their daily work to feed themselves.

If travel restrictions and business closures were enforced, he said, many people would not be able to pay their day-to-day expenses and would be forced to turn elsewhere for support — including, perhaps, traveling home.

“I think the government could not put in place a state of emergency because the government does not have enough resources to support people,” Nee said. “If the government put in place a state of emergency, people could meet with starvation.”

Hun Sen said the government was playing a difficult game trying to form the right response and coronavirus was forcing many to make hard choices.

In the early morning before the press conference, Hun Sen had ordered a flight from Malaysia with 150 Cambodian nationals on board not be allowed to land in Phnom Penh due to fears some could be infected, he said.

One of the first large outbreaks of the Covid-19 disease in Cambodia came late last month among a group of Cambodians who had travelled to Kuala Lumpur for an Islamic religious festival impacted by a “super spreader.”

“My decision this morning was painful because I had no choice, so please, the Cambodian people in Malaysia, be understanding,” Hun Sen said.

He noted 60,000 migrant workers had come back to Cambodia from Thailand, which has had its own issues with coronavirus, but said the government had asked them all to “quarantine” at home for 14 days. He said it was unreasonable to try to close the border with Thailand to citizens of Cambodia who wished to return, pointing to the existence of the many “informal” points of entry that could not be policed by the government. 

“I hope that our migrant workers who have proper work will not come back for the Khmer New Year,” Hun Sen said, adding that he feared community spread if many workers returned in shared transportation to Cambodia.

In a long and diverse speech, Hun Sen also said he had contracted with two private firms to produce inexpensive alcohol solutions for disinfection purposes and that he was also open to hosting military games in Cambodia with countries from around the world including the U.S. and Australia.