ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia Opposition Leader Charged Over COVID-19 Lockdown Comments

The charge against Sam Rainsy comes amid controversy over the severity of the lockdown around the capital Phnom Penh.

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Cambodia Opposition Leader Charged Over COVID-19 Lockdown Comments

Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy in 2019.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ericse157

A Cambodian court has ordered the arrest of opposition leader Sam Rainsy on charges of “incitement” after he called on members of the public to disobey the strict COVID-19 lockdown that has been declared in Phnom Penh and surrounding areas.

The charge refers to comments that the exiled politician made in an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language service on Tuesday, in which he lashed out at the government’s recently implemented lockdown, criticized its lack of aid to residents, and said its COVID-19 relief efforts were riddled with corruption.

Rainsy said that many Cambodian people are “more afraid of dying of starvation than COVID-19,” and called on people not to obey the strict lockdown that has left many without access to food and other vital necessities. “Even if I didn’t say anything, I don’t think the people have the patience to stay home until they starve, so before they die, they will disobey, and [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s government won’t be able to do anything,” he said.

On Wednesday, a judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a warrant for Rainsy’s arrest, claiming that his comments could “provoke a serious national security issue” due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

The charge is purely political and theatrical, given that Sam Rainsy has been living in exile since 2016, and has since been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison on a raft of bogus criminal charges.

But it hints at the government jitters that have accompanied the current COVID-19 outbreak, which followed a year in which Cambodia seemed strangely immune from the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said that 698 people tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the country’s total caseload to 11,760 people. Meanwhile, the country’s death toll from the pandemic rose to 88.

To combat the outbreak, in mid-April, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a strict two-week lockdown in the capital Phnom Penh and the nearby town of Takhmau, day closure of all non-essential businesses. In designated “red zones,” citizens have been forced to stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency, and all business activities have been banned, including the selling of food and medicine. The lockdowns have since been extended for a third week until May 5, and could conceivably continue for some time to come.

The “red zone” restrictions have been reportedly cut off food supplies for thousands of garment workers, market vendors, and others who survive on a day-to-day income. On April 24, Phnom Penh municipal authorities ordered all public markets closed for two weeks, further restricting residents’ access to food.

One local writer described the scenes inside the “red zones” as akin to “a dystopian science fiction novel. Fully armed police and military manning barricades, daily death and infection tolls, and queues for food as the country’s public health system unravels at its seams.”

According to a confidential briefing by a local civil society group, a copy of which was shared with The Diplomat, the harsh lockdowns “have resulted in a crisis for tens of thousands of people,” with dozens taking to Facebook and messaging apps to appeal for donations and other help.

“Many of these people have lacked access to food, medicine or basic necessities for over a week,” states the April 25 briefing. “While the public has received little to no warnings or clear information about the rapidly changing rules, new measures have been enforced with violence, excessive fines, and prison sentences with a complete lack of oversight.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government opened an online store, through which people in “red zones” can order food to be delivered to outside their homes. However, several of the companies that are the sole providers of these items are closely linked to top ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) officials, allowing them to corner the market in lockdown supplies. These include Vital bottled water, a company owned by two daughters-in-law of Hun Sen, and Mi Chiet instant noodles, which is owned by a daughter-in-law of the powerful CPP senator.

Has also been accompanied by draconian actions to enforce the curfew in “red zones,” with police beating people who step foot outside their homes without the proper authorization. Authorities have also threatened to fine anyone found in breach of the lockdown between 1 and 20 million riels ($250 and $4,950) and punish them with between six months and five years in prison.

Between April 10 and 25, a total of 258 people arrested by authorities were fined, sent to quarantine centers and/or sent to court, according to the confidential briefing. Out of the 258 people, 83 were sent to court and jailed.

Yesterday, the Cambodian government announced that it would reevaluate its lockdown protocols in seven days. But these harsh measures are an indication that after successfully containing the spread of the virus through 2020, through a combination of timely action and sheer luck, the Cambodian government is beginning to panic and overreach in a bid to bring the COVID-19 outbreak under control.