Some 150 Cambodian migrant workers and students on Wednesday urged their government to allow them to return home from Malaysia, where they were left stranded after Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to accept them, citing fears they could be infected with the coronavirus.
Sobri Salleh, one of the students, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he and the others learned of Hun Sen’s decision on Tuesday as they were prevented from boarding planes to Cambodia at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Members of the group broke down and cried, he said, as many had already spent hundreds of U.S. dollars on their flights and packed up their lives in Malaysia—where authorities have confirmed 4,119 infections and 65 deaths—with the expectation of returning home for good.
“There are students, workers, and tourists—some of whose visas are about to expire,” Sobri Salleh said.
“Many of the workers no longer have jobs [because of the economic impact of the outbreak], so they want to return home. If they can’t go home, they won’t have enough money to meet their needs [in Malaysia].”
Of the 150 Cambodians, around 10 refused to leave the airport until late Tuesday evening, when officials from Cambodia’s embassy met with them and asked them to leave. The embassy did not provide food for them and Sobri Salleh said he spent his own money to ensure everyone had something to eat.
Another student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that she was willing to submit to a two-week quarantine if she is allowed to return home.
“In Malaysia now, there are no jobs—they are only helping their own people,” she said.
RFA spoke with an official at the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur who refused to comment about the situation, but the embassy later released a statement saying that the 10 people who refused to leave the airport have been provided temporary shelter until the problem is resolved. The embassy also asked Cambodians in Malaysia to “remain patient.”
Hun Sen on Tuesday had told members of the media in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh that he would not allow the 150 Cambodian nationals to return home from Malaysia because “we don’t know who among them has COVID-19,” referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Dy Thehoya, senior program officer at Cambodian rights group the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, told RFA that the government should reconsider banning its citizens from returning to Cambodia, saying that they will face severe hardships if forced to stay in Malaysia.
“How much does the government need to spend to bring them home?” he asked.
“They pay taxes to the government, so when they are in trouble, the government should help them … The government is obligated to protect its citizens. Most governments only ban foreigners [from entering], not their own citizens.”
Reports of the ban came as Cambodia’s Ministry of Health announced the country’s 117th confirmed COVID-19 case on Wednesday, while the total number of cases worldwide neared 1.5 million and more than 87,000 related deaths. Cambodia has yet to record a death from COVID-19.
Workers at home
Workers at home in Cambodia, meanwhile, continued to struggle amid the outbreak, which has hampered the economy and shuttered factories, leading to an increasing number of layoffs.
On Wednesday, a dozen unions from the textile, construction, transportation, and tourism industries signed a joint petition urging the government to pay suspended workers the 60 percent of minimum monthly wages—equivalent to around U.S. $115—they were promised in February and called for an official order preventing employers from firing their employees during the crisis.
The petition came in response to an announcement by Hun Sen a day earlier that the government will only pay laid off workers U.S. $70 per month, though he said that they would not be required to attend vocational training to receive the money, as was part of the proposal two months ago.
Athit Kong, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Union (CCAWU), said the government should pay each suspended worker 20 percent of their minimum wages and employers pay the remaining 40 percent.
“The government is paying us only U.S. $70 a month—we insist the government ensures that each suspended worker receives 60 percent of his or her salary,” he said, adding that unions also want microfinance institutions to defer their loans and interest.
In addition to his announcement of decreased payments to people who had been laid off, Hun Sen on Tuesday suggested workers should “sell their belongings” to cope with the financial crisis during the outbreak.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Hun Sen had also spoken with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about cooperating with the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to request U.S. $2 million in aid to combat COVID-19.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed the two had spoken by phone on Tuesday and that Pompeo had “expressed hope that over U.S. $2 million in new U.S. aid … will help Cambodia's efforts confronting the epidemic.”
The statement said that Pompeo and Hun Sen “also discussed the importance of Cambodia’s sovereignty, as well as ways to strengthen its democratic governance, including the importance of freedom of expression, especially during this time when all voices are needed to fight the pandemic.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (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.
Rollbacks on democratic freedoms in the country have prompted criticism of Hun Sen’s leadership from Western governments and rights groups in recent years, and friction between Washington and Phnom Penh has increased over the crackdown.
Also on Wednesday, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement demanding “the immediate release” of Cambodian journalist and director of the TVFB news site Sovann Rithy, who was arrested for reporting a comment by Hun Sen about the outbreak.
Sovann Rithy was taken into custody by police in the capital on Tuesday evening and charged with “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code, RSF said, citing police chief Sar Theth.
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 crisis to “sell your motorbikes for spending money … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.”
The information ministry reacted by ordering the revocation of TVFB’s media license on the grounds that its editor had “selected” the prime minister’s quote, RSF said, noting that Sovann Rithy is due to appear before a municipal court tomorrow.
“We call on the Cambodian justice system to put an end to this utterly Kafkaesque case by releasing Sovann Rithy at once, and we call on the government to reinstate TVFB’s media licence,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in the statement.
“Imprisoning a journalist for quoting a statement by the prime minister word for word is more than absurd. The COVID-19 crisis must not be used as pretext for getting rid of journalists who do not blindly toe the government line.”
Cambodia was ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.