Cambodia’s National Assembly approved legislation on Friday authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus despite widespread concerns that it would give unchecked power to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has rolled back democratic freedoms in the country.
The parliament’s 125 lawmakers, all of whom belong to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), unanimously voted for the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” approving it an hour after it was introduced.
Ahead of the vote, Minister of Justice Koeut Rith told the National Assembly that the law is in compliance with the constitution and would empower the government to manage the country if King Norodom Sihamoni announces a state of emergency because of the outbreak in Cambodia, which as of Friday had caused 119 cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the virus.
“We can’t afford not to have [such] a law,’ he said. “The draft law aims at protecting national security, public order, lives, and public property.”
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long dismissed criticism from rights groups in recent days that the law grants sweeping powers to the executive, saying that the government must constantly report to parliament throughout a state of emergency.
“Those who criticize the draft law saying it gives too much authority to the government are not right,” he said, calling measures in the bill “reasonable.”
Hun Sen, who was present for the debate, was the only person present that did not wear a facemask at the National Assembly on Friday.
When asked why, Leng Peng Long said that while the lawmakers are encouraged to wear masks, it is a matter of personal preference.
Hun Sen, who only weeks ago dismissed concerns over the pandemic, has waved off suggestions that he is using the crisis to give himself even greater control of Cambodia through the proposed legislation.
In recent days, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had warned that the draft law contained vague clauses that would provide Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat” if enacted, while Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it would lead to “gross violations of the freedom to inform and be informed that could have serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis.”
Among the law’s provisions are a punishment of up to a decade in jail for anyone found guilty of “obstructing authorities” or failing to respect government measures in such a way that causes social unrest or threatens national security.
On Friday, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Eng Chhai Eng told RFA’s Khmer Service from self-imposed exile that he was unsurprised by the National Assembly’s decision to approve the draft law, which he said Hun Sen had “prepared for future use” if his power is threatened.
“He will use the law against those who oppose his transfer of power to his children,” he said, referring to reports that some legislators in Cambodia may be preparing to challenge Hun Sen’s plan for succession and that the law’s articles could be used to suppress debate on the issue.
CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy told RFA from Paris, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated charges and conviction, that he is concerned the government will use the law to legitimize rights abuses.
“It will be very dangerous if the truth is hidden and Hun Sen is permitted to do anything he wants, arbitrarily,” he said.
“He doesn’t want the public or the media to know the truth … In other countries, leaders act transparently, and we know what the government is doing.”
Travel ban eased
Meanwhile, Hun Sen on Friday eased some restrictions on a travel ban he had imposed a day earlier, which he said he had ordered to prevent spread of the coronavirus ahead of the April 13-16 Khmer New Year.
As part of a new order, Hun Sen said that residents of Kandal province and the municipality of Phnom Penh, which the province surrounds, may cross the border freely. He also lifted a restriction on traveling between districts, provided they are within the same province.
The travel ban, which came without warning on Thursday, has already affected tens of thousands of migrant workers, who traditionally travel from cities back to their hometowns to be with family during the Khmer New Year.
The government recently announced that it had canceled this year’s holiday and said factory employees would be required to work as usual, while Hun Sen has warned of “tough measures” for those who don’t go to the factories.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Ministry of Labor said workers can travel to factories if they show their identification cards to the authorities, adding that not going “can be regarded as a serious violation resulting in termination without pay.” Workers who “incite or intimidate their coworkers” will face prosecution, the statement added.
On Friday, a worker told RFA on condition of anonymity that she wanted to travel home but is afraid of losing her job.
“The workers are disappointed, and our relatives are also disappointed,” she said.
“I know the government is trying to prevent the spread of the virus, but they shouldn’t stop us from visiting relatives. We have no idea how long the virus will remain a threat.”
A villager named Sok Phyrum said he believes Hun Sen is “testing people’s reactions” with the ban ahead of invoking a state of emergency.
“I am concerned that this is only the first step,” he said. “The law will seriously impact freedom of speech advocates and human rights defenders.”
Also on Friday, HRW issued a statement calling on Cambodia to “immediately drop all charges” against Sovann Rithy, a journalist working for TVFB, who was arrested for reporting a recent speech by Hun Sen about the coronavirus.
Sovann Rithy was taken into custody by police in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday evening and charged with “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code.
The reporter had accurately posted on Facebook a comment by Hun Sen earlier that day telling motorbike-taxi drivers who go bankrupt because of the coronavirus outbreak to “sell your motorbikes for spending money … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.”
“Even in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, arresting a journalist for quoting the prime minister marks a new low for press freedom,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director said in Friday’s statement.
“The government should immediately release Rithy and drop the bogus charges against him and others detained for expressing their opinions or fears about COVID-19.”
Authorities have arrested several people on allegations that they had spread “fake news” about the coronavirus.
HRW said it had documented 23 arrests and 10 people in pretrial detention, eight of whom were affiliated with the CNRP.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.