Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, initially criticized for his cavalier attitude toward COVID-19, has cancelled next week’s Khmer New Year celebrations amid fears people returning to their home villages from the cities will spread the new coronavirus further.
“The government decided to cancel the celebrations of the Khmer New Year,” he said, telling a press conference that “the government wants to reduce the traveling of people to prevent the spread of infection from one place to another.”
“This measure is to prevent the people from contracting the virus,” he added. “The most safe places are at working places.”
Hun Sen’s nixing of the festivities constitutes the latest in a series of moves as fears intensify related to the coronavirus in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia In addition to this, Cambodia has cancelled some workers returning from abroad – including some 150 Cambodian migrant workers from Malaysia, who were scheduled to fly back to the Kingdom.
Furthermore, reports from the countryside indicate people in far-flung and isolated villages are also being reminded by the local authorities to remain indoors whenever possible and not to attend New Year celebrations even at the local level.
Known for his colorful delivery, Hun Sen said the holiday, which would have started on Monday and ended Thursday, would be offset by a five-day national holiday, to be announced once the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over.
“A holiday for three days?” Hun Sen said. “What do you need it for when people in the countryside are afraid of getting infected by you, and you are also afraid of getting infected by them?”
Hun Sen’s comments led to confusion about what this might mean, including whether there may be moves such as a partial lockdown coming up soon. His comments were qualified by a government spokesman who told The Diplomat that the country’s business elite could continue to operate as normal.
“All banks, all government officials and all garments manufacturers workers will be working normally,” the spokesperson said, adding these were “great measures for avoiding and spreading the virus. This is a really best solution and it surprised everybody.”
The Cambodian economy was already in trouble before the outbreak of the coronavirus, with the partial withdrawal of European Union trade preferences in response to allegations that Hun Sen had rigged the 2018 election by banning the main political opposition party. Cambodia was subsequently returned to a one-party state, with Hun Sen’s party sweeping all the seats in the legislature.
According to the Cambodian Health Ministry, the country has confirmed 117 cases of COVID-19 so far; of them 63 have recovered and no deaths have been reported. Cambodia is faring much better that its neighbors at this point – despite questions over the degree of testing.
Overall, thus far, over 83,000 deaths have been confirmed worldwide from more than 1.4 million cases. Neighboring Thailand has recorded more than 2,200 cases and 26 deaths.
Nevertheless, that perceived success has not lost the authoritarian leader support at home even if it means cancelling Khmer New Year, when Cambodians make their annual pilgrimage home and are reunited with families and old friends amid annual festivities.
“At first we were very nervous. The virus could kill everyone and we know it started in China and there are many Chinese who work and live here,” said one local vendor who declined to be named.
“But the disease has not spread here like in other countries. Look at Italy, look at Spain,” he added.
Another Khmer, who declined to be named as well, added: “This virus is very highly contagious, perhaps we have been lucky, I don’t know.”
Hun Sen was criticized for his early attitude toward the virus, allowing cruise ships with infected passengers to dock along with subtle accusations that foreigners are responsible for its transmission.
But that has changed in recent weeks, with borders closing and flights cancelled. Many expatriates who had remained after the troubled 2018 election are now leaving.
As a result, foreign governments and private contractors are negotiating chartered flights out of Cambodia amid expectations all flights will soon be cancelled. As a case in point, Australia has chartered a flight to Sydney this Sunday for its nationals seeking to leave.
Luke Hunt can be followed @lukeanthonyhunt