The total lockdown of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and the surrounding area, which began on April 15, has affected more than 2 million people. During the lockdown, the area was divided into yellow, orange, and red zones, based on the number of people that tested positive for COVID-19. In the first three months of the current outbreak, more than 20,000 cases have been reported, along with 159 deaths.
The lockdown was implemented less than 24 hours after a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, in which he referred to a city-wide lockdown, was leaked to the public, sending thousands to rush to shops to buy supplies with the little savings they had. In addition to the draconian COVID-19 laws, Hun Sen’s regime also issued administrative measures that included armed military police patrolling the colored zones, allowed private security guards with batons and sticks to punish those who crossed the blockades, and involved the imposition of heavy fines.
More than 500 people have been arrested, detained, charged, or “re-educated” for expressing their concerns or opinions related to the strict measures, the COVID-19 virus, or the China-made vaccines used by the government, which were purchased before the shots were even approved by the World Health Organization.
Amid these restrictive measures, at least three pregnant women were forced to deliver babies at home as they were barred from going to hospital, due to the fear of heavy fines. One of the women compared the experience of delivering her baby in a chair, outside a rented apartment, as similar to the nightmare and terror she lived through during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Thousands have used social media to send SOS messages asking for food or medical assistance. Peaceful protests have erupted as people in the lockdown zones are desperately appealing for the government to send food supplies and to suspend or assist them in paying their utility bills, rents, or debts to microfinance institutions. Fearing uncontrollable social unrest, the regime lifted the crackdown seven weeks after the lockdown despite recording a high number of positive cases among factory workers. A second wave of infections is looming.
In April, the World Health Organization warned that Cambodia stands on the brink of a national tragedy. U.N. experts and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have expressed serious concerns over the harsh measures, public health and economic tragedy, and above all the human rights disaster, in a situation that could have been manageable with better planning. Such a scenario could have been avoided if the government had engaged with civil society organizations, and granted a voice and support for the trade union leaders and representatives of the informal sector, who can speak for those who are most affected by the lockdown. Factory workers and the urban poor represent the majority of the cases.
Cambodia should turn the COVID-19 challenges into opportunities by respecting freedom of speech, fundamental human rights, and human dignity. Let experts collect data from those affected by COVID-19 and assess the impact on the local economy, which relies mainly on women working in the informal sector. The impact on the education of more than 3 million children and students must be addressed through an inclusive process and consultations with local and international organizations such as UNICEF, and most importantly, with the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA). CITA founder Rong Chhun, who was arrested last August, must be immediately released, and not considered an enemy of the regime.
The Cambodian people have suffered enough from the regime’s mismanagement of COVID-19, as well as through unnecessarily restrictive laws and measures. The health system is not equipped to deal with such a health crisis. Although the death toll has remained relatively low, the tragedy of those who have died as a result of being turned away by public hospitals that are ill equipped to handle COVID-19 patients, or because of simple disregard of the right to healthcare, must not be repeated. Most people cannot afford private healthcare. Corruption in the healthcare system and people’s debts related to healthcare are prerogative issues that cannot be ignored.
The United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, has provided more than $11 million for Cambodia to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cambodia has also benefited from the U.S. commitment to the COVAX Facility, which supports access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. Cambodia has also requested the U.S. to provide an additional 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
The U.S. can best strengthen its relations with Cambodia by considering a post-COVID-19 development program that is tied to human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law. As a start, the U.S. Congress should make several firm demands: that all those in detention for expressing their opinions about the regime’s COVID-19 measures be immediately released; that independent media be allowed to report on the COVID-19 situation without fear of arrest or having their licenses revoked; and that the government withdraw its recently passed COVID-19 law, which imposes heavy fines and carries prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Under the Biden administration, the United States is re-claiming its reputation as a country that puts human rights, democracy, and rule of law at the center of its foreign relations, and the U.S. can demonstrate this by helping Cambodia on its path back toward democracy by holding open discussions with members of the opposition and Cambodian democrats whom the regime considers its enemy. It can invite a range of voices to discuss a shared agenda that upholds human rights and freedoms as conditions for providing quality aid, and development that is just and fair.
There cannot be quality delivery of aid without freedom of speech and association as well as a system of checks and balances, and without a real war on corruption. Cambodia must not remain a one-party state. The U.S. must seize the opportunity to engage other signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to fulfill their obligations to the principles of the Accords, which are based on human rights and a multiparty democratic system. The range of local expertise and talents is extensive and must be tapped now to ensure a post COVID-19 economy and social system that really leaves no one behind and for the democratic space to return to the gains made after the 1993 U.N.-sponsored elections, until the abrupt shutdown of democracy in 2017. Democracy advocates in Cambodia and in other parts of Southeast Asia are America’s most reliable partners in making the region safe and secure.