Cambodia’s National Assembly will proceed with a review of draft legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus, despite concerns that the bill has not been adequately vetted and Prime Minister Hun Sen saying Tuesday that there is no need to invoke it any time soon.
Leng Peng Long, spokesman for the one-party National Assembly, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the parliament’s permanent committee has received the draft “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” for assessment and will submit it to lawmakers for a vote “by Friday latest.”
He confirmed that the draft law is nearly identical to one that was leaked last week, prompting New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to warn that it contained vague clauses that would provide Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat” if enacted.
Leng Peng Long’s comments came on the same day that Hun Sen said the outbreak in Cambodia does not currently warrant invoking a state of emergency and that he is reluctant to do so because it would “kill the country’s economy.”
Nonetheless, Hun Sen said, such a law is needed if the situation becomes dire in Cambodia, where authorities have so far confirmed only 115 cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus—and no deaths.
“Critics have said that it is not the time to place the country under a state of emergency,” he said.
“I am aware of that, but we need a tool on hand so that if we are losing control of the situation, we can enact a state of emergency.”
Hun Sen, who only weeks ago dismissed concerns over the pandemic, waved off suggestions that he is using the crisis to give himself even greater control of Cambodia through the proposed legislation.
“Please leave the work to us—the person who has the most power is the prime minister,” he said.
But San Chey, director of the Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, cautioned the government to refrain from pushing through a law that requires further review.
“It isn’t necessary to place Cambodia under a state of emergency at this moment because COVID-19 hasn’t seriously impacted the country yet,” he said. “The draft law should be delayed because more discussion is needed.”
Eng Chhai Eang, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA from self-imposed exile that Hun Sen is likely to use a state of emergency to persecute anyone who poses a threat to his power, without the fear of international condemnation.
“His intention is pass power to his family members,” he said, adding that although Hun Sen succeeded in November 2017 in dissolving the CNRP through a Supreme Court ban over the opposition’s alleged involvement in a plot to topple the government, “not even members of the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)] want a family dynasty.”
“Hun Sen will use the [state of emergency] if someone opposes him,” Eng Chhai Eang said.
Also on Tuesday, Hun Sun announced that the government will be unable to pay workers laid off by garment factories hit with supply chain disruptions for raw materials from China, where the coronavirus was first discovered in December in Hubei province’s Wuhan city, as originally promised.
In February, the prime minister pledged that workers would be paid 60 percent of the current minimum monthly wage, equivalent to around U.S. $115, for up to six months in the event that production was suspended, and provided that the workers attend vocational training.
“Because of the situation [with COVID-19], each worker will get only U.S. $70,” he said, adding that they will not be required to go to training to qualify for the money.
Hun Sen’s comments came as the Ministry of Labor announced that the government will be suspending the April 13-16 Khmer New Year celebrations, and that workers will not be given holiday until “an appropriate time,” when the crisis comes under control.
While the coronavirus outbreak in China has thrown production for Cambodia’s garment industry into disarray, observers have suggested that even tougher losses are in store for factories and workers when combined with an expected drop in orders from buyers in the European Union, in anticipation of a return to tariffs on some Cambodian imports.
The EU in mid-February announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on human rights—a decision that would reinstate taxes on garments and footwear beginning Aug. 12, unless it is overturned by the bloc’s governments or its parliament.
The suspension, which Hun Sen has shrugged off and called an attack on Cambodia’s sovereignty, will result in a loss of around U.S. $1.1 billion of the country’s annual U.S. $5.8 billion in exports to the bloc, some 75 percent of which are made up of clothing and textiles.
On Tuesday, Hun Sen mocked the EU, saying that Cambodia had budgeted to stave off the impact of a crisis on its workers—more than 600,000 of whom are employed in the garment industry.
But Ath Thon, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, warned that the significant reduction in wages for furloughed workers will leave them in financial ruin and called on the government to put in place additional measures to protect them.
“Before [the outbreak], they were making more than U.S. $200 and they still faced difficulties, so what can we expect will happen now?” he asked.
Ath Thon said he will request that the government reconsider decreasing payments to workers and order banks to defer payments on their loans during the crisis.
A worker who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said the government’s payments will only help workers for a limited period of time, noting that she needs money to pay for rent and food in the city where her factory is based, as well as to send home to family members.
According to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), more than 90 factories have suspended operations and at least 1,500 workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the outbreak.
No release for prisoners
Meanwhile, the General Department of Prisons spokesman Nuth Saona said Tuesday that there are no plans to release political prisoners or prisoners serving sentences for minor crimes, despite a warning from HRW over the weekend that the government take “urgent measures” to reduce the risk that the country’s “severely overcrowded” jails will suffer coronavirus outbreaks.
“Government measures are already in place inside Cambodia’s prisons to mitigate the spread of the virus,” he told RFA, adding that his department is working with the Ministry of Health to combat the outbreak.
Cambodia on March 25 suspended visiting rights for anyone except people who obtain medical certificates and undergo temperature checks upon entering prisons, and instructed prison chiefs to quarantine all new detainees for two weeks but has provided little detail about the measures.
But sources told RFA that authorities have yet to implement the measures nationwide in jails where prisoners have limited access to soap and water, as well as hand sanitizer, and are held in cramped conditions with others.
According to official statistics, as of March 2020, Cambodia had nearly 39,000 inmates nationwide, among whom more than 20,000 inmates are serving jail terms for drugs-related offenses. Inmates with court rulings or final judgments number around 10,000, while the rest are held under pre-trial detention.
On Sunday, HRW urged authorities to “immediately release people who should not be in custody,” including pretrial detainees held for minor offenses, and political prisoners. The group also recommended alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and women who are pregnant or held with small children.
It said that to reduce the risk of transmission in prisons, the government should routinely monitor all patients for symptoms, immediately test those who become ill, isolate those who test positive, and quarantine prisoners who were in close contact with those found to have COVID-19.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.