A group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on Friday called on Cambodia’s National Assembly to approve legislation channeling a portion of the national budget towards fighting the coronavirus outbreak after Prime Minister Hun Sen urged civil servants to donate their salaries to the effort.
In an April 1 letter posted to his Facebook page, Hun Sen announced that he had donated his 10 million riel (U.S. $2,500) monthly salary from March to September to the National Committee for Combating COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus, which Cambodia had 114 confirmed cases of as of Friday, with no deaths.
Several other ministers, including Minister of National Defence Tea Banh, followed suit, pledging to donate up to six months of their salaries to the committee that Hun Sen oversees, while the Ministry of the Environment said 36 of its officials will also hand over half a year of wages.
The letter came as a leaked video emerged of the Prime Minister saying he had raised U.S. $11 million to date to fight the spread of the virus, including his donation, and that Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng will be in charge of COVID-19-related expenditures.
“Not all of us can make the same donations,” he says in the video, during which he also called on members of his cabinet and other civil servants to forgo their pay. “Some can donate their whole salary, while others can afford only 20-50 percent.”
On Friday, Hun Sen again took to Facebook calling on Cambodians to trust the national health care system, adding that his government plans to build a factory to produce facemasks and hand sanitzer, while local factories will be pressed into producing protective clothing for health workers.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, San Chey, the director of Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, welcomed the donations, but called on the National Assembly to approve government use of a national budget to fight the virus.
“COVID-19 is a national issue, so if the government needs a budget [to combat it], it must go through the National Assembly,” he said.
Last month, Hun Sen announced that the country needed a national budget to assist Cambodians impacted by the outbreak, cutting funding for most ministries to 50 percent, and the Ministries of National Defence and Commerce, and the Council of Ministers to 25 percent.
He recently repeated vows not to cut salaries for civil servants during the upcoming April 14-16 Khmer New Year holiday, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
But analyst Kim Sok told RFA Friday that he is concerned Hun Sen will next move from soliciting donations from to reducing the paychecks of civil servants.
“When I heard his audio, it seemed as if he wants to take civil servants’ paychecks,” he said.
Government-affiliated online site Fresh News recently published several letters from top government officials, including from the Ministry of Justice, explaining why they were donating their salaries to fight the virus.
In one such letter, Minister of Cult and Religion Chhit Sokhun said he had pledged six months of his salary, worth about 28 million (U.S. $6,900), “to join hands with the government to fight against COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, police in the Kandal province have arrested another activist with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on charges of “conspiracy to commit treason.”
Chhim Peana, a former CNRP commune councilor, was taken into custody by about 10 police officers on Thursday while picking vegetables at his relative’s home, his wife Sok Polyma told RFA.
“My husband was shocked—he was simply out picking fruit,” she said, adding that he had never conspired against the government or been in trouble with the law.
“This is a politically motivated arrest. It is very unjust for millions of people who support the CNRP. The opposition party has done nothing wrong. As his wife, I cannot accept this.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 over an alleged plot to topple the government which, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and independent media, paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Chhim Peana said that she went to see her husband at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday, but was told that he had already been sent to the notorious Prey Sar Prison.
RFA was unable to reach court spokesman Y Rin for comment.
Soeung Senkarona, a spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the arrest was less about a crime than political persecution of the opposition, and said it would lead to international condemnation of the government.
“We have seen clearly that Cambodia is moving off of the path of democracy and human rights,” he said.
“The government should end this backsliding and instead unite to fight against COVID-19,” he added, warning that prosecution of the opposition party will “polarize the country.”
Also on Friday, authorities released CNRP activist Mai Hong Sreang from prison after he completed an eight-month term for “incitement” related to posting comments critical of the government on Facebook ahead of a planned return by acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy from self-imposed exile to “restore democracy” in Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy’s bid was labeled part of a “coup attempt” by Cambodia’s government and ultimately blocked.
Mai Hong Sreang was due to be released by April 1, but was detained for two days longer, he told RFA.
He called his arrest and jailing “politically motivated,” and said his “spirit remains strong,” in spite of his incarceration.
“I believe the government arrested me because they are concerned [over public support of the CNRP],” he said.
“I maintain that I had no intention of trying to overthrow the government. I only want development for our country.”
Mai Hong Sreang had been originally sentenced to 18 months in jail, but his punishment was reduced to eight months by Cambodia’s Appeals Court.
Adhoc Human Rights Unit Chief Ny Sokha said he was saddened to see the activist jailed and called for national reconciliation amid the virus outbreak.
“The court should not only release Mai Hong Sreang, but everyone who is being detained for exercising freedom of expression,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.