Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday said he is considering requesting that King Norodom Sihamoni declare a state of emergency as the number of infections from the coronavirus neared 100 in his country.
Speaking to some 400 doctors, nurses, and volunteers in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen warned that under a state of emergency, some freedoms would be curtailed, and urged human rights groups to refrain from criticizing the government.
“I am considering using article 22 of the constitution to request that the king place the country under a state of emergency,” the prime minister said.
“I don’t want to do it, but I will if my bans are not effective,” he said, referring to restrictions already put in place requiring schools and entertainment venues closed to combat the spread of the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
“The constitution says that when the country is facing danger, the king can declare a state of emergency upon agreement from the prime minister, National Assembly (parliament), and the president of the Senate.”
Hun Sen’s speech came as Cambodia’s health ministry announced that the country had confirmed a total of 96 coronavirus cases within its borders, and as numbers continued to balloon worldwide, with nearly 460,000 infections that have left around 21,000 people dead.
Organizers of Wednesday’s event sat side-by-side during Hun Sen’s speech, disregarding widely practiced rules of social distancing that require people to maintain a distance of six feet (two meters) from one another to prevent viral spread.
Hun Sen said that those who volunteer to fight the outbreak will only be deployed once they can be provided with enough protective equipment, adding that any retailers who practice price gouging for surgical masks or other preventative items will be “shut down.”
Any foreigners in Cambodia who test positive for the virus will be treated free of charge, he said, calling it the country’s “obligation” to do so.
Responding to Hun Sen’s announcement, Yong Kim Eng, president of local NGO the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, told RFA’s Khmer Service he supports the government’s move, but cautioned against a crackdown on human rights and freedom of expression, noting that authorities have recently arrested people for allegedly disseminating “fake news” about the virus.
“We must ensure freedom of speech, especially through the media and social media platforms,” he said.
New case in Laos
Also on Wednesday, the Ministry of Health in Laos, which a day earlier confirmed the first two cases of coronavirus in the country, announced that a 26-year-old male who had contact with one of the patients is now infected, bringing the total number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to three.
“A businessman residing in Houey Hom village, in Vientiane’s Sikhottabong district, had contact with a previously infected [patient] from the Crowne Plaza Hotel,” Deputy Minister of Health Dr. Phouthone Muang Pak told a press conference.
“The two had dinner together. We collected samples from the businessman and found that he was also infected [with COVID-19] and counted him as the third case in Laos.”
On Tuesday, Laos confirmed that a female Lao national, aged 36, who works as a guide for European tourists, and a 28-year-old male Lao national working in management at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Vientiane, had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the landlocked nation’s first two official cases.
On Wednesday, Phouthone said that the two patients had been transferred from the Lao-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Vientiane to the capital’s Mittapab Hospital, where they are in “stable condition, without any complications.”
“After an investigation into their background, officials have found that 133 people were in contact with the two patients,” he added.
Laos, one of the region’s poorest countries, had been undertaking increasingly strict measures in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Last week, authorities in Laos shuttered all small checkpoints for Lao and Thai nationals across their countries’ shared border, suspended issuance of e-visas and tourist visas, recommended that Laotians refrain from any nonessential travel abroad, banned large gatherings, and closed all entertainment venues.
The new measures came on the same day authorities closed all schools throughout the nation until April 21, citing coronavirus concerns.
Earlier this week, Laos began rolling out quarantine requirements for tens of thousands of migrant workers returning home from neighboring Thailand amid growing restrictions there and ahead of April 14-16 New Year festivities. As of Wednesday, Thailand had reported 934 cases of infections and four deaths from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Laotians told RFA’s Lao Service that they have become increasingly worried with the confirmation of infections within the country.
“I’m scared—it’s spreading faster than many other viruses,” said a resident of Vientiane. “Everybody is wearing masks and staying home.”
But a villager in Vientiane province said he welcomed the government’s decision to be forthright about the infections.
“Some people are panicking, but for me, I’m glad the cases have been revealed so we can protect ourselves,” the villager said.
“The health ministry is not taking the disease lightly and implementing stringent measures against it.”
Vietnam tightens restrictions
In Vietnam, the country’s health ministry announced an additional seven cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total number of infections to 141, with no deaths reported.
The new total came as authorities in the capital Hanoi and in nearby Yen Bai province on Wednesday ordered the temporary closure of all non-essential businesses, including restaurants and entertainment venues, as well as bans on the gathering of large groups of people.
Authorities in the two regions urged residents to work from home and switch to online learning platforms to avoid leaving their houses.
The new orders came a day after the Ho Chi Minh City municipal government ordered all entertainment venues closed until the end of the month.
Also on Wednesday, Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport—Vietnam’s busiest airport—temporarily suspended receiving foreign nationals until March 31, in accordance with an order from the Ministry of Transport.
Vietnam Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier, announced it would suspend international fights over the same period.
The restrictions on air travel coincided with the return of around 1,000 Vietnamese nationals by plane from countries including Russia, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday urged Vietnamese nationals to refrain from traveling in and out of the country amid the outbreak.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service, Lao Service, and Vietnamese Service. Translated by Samean Yun, Max Avary, Ounkeo Souksavanh, and Huy Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.