Local bars and restaurants have balked at a government directive that bans the sale or consumption of alcohol this weekend in a move ostensibly aimed at preventing civil disorder and unrest during commune elections.
The directive, issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen last Friday, requires all businesses that serve spirits to abstain from selling to patrons on June 3 and 4, and urges compliance from both locals and foreigners to ensure a smooth election process. It warns of the threat of alcohol-induced violence, traffic accidents, crimes and disorder during the election process.
The directive does not detail how the temporary alcohol ban will be enforced or explain the penalties for failing to comply.
While the directive is a hallmark of past elections and mirrors steps taken by governments in Thailand and Singapore, it has been historically loosely enforced.
Despite the ban, Tom O’Connor, a manager and shareholder of The Exchange in Phnom Penh, said the restaurant has no plans to cancel its second annual Craft Beer Fest, a fundraising charity event scheduled for Saturday with seven local microbreweries participating.
“This ban is primarily targeted for smaller local and foreign establishments,” he said.
“And we have been told by the authorities, although nothing is in writing, that larger establishments like us can continue to operate.”
O’Connor said the main objective of the ban appeared to be to ensure that Cambodians cast their votes and do not riot, adding that authorities were unlikely to enforce the directive on the majority of hotels and restaurants.
“If the government sees this directive as a necessary risk to take, then OK, but maybe it is just a way to give people an extended holiday when they go back to their communes to vote,” he said.
Nevertheless, O’Connor argued that the directive creates uncertainty in the tourism and hospitality sector, especially among foreign tourists who may not know how it is applied.
“It does hurt business because people get scared and tourists don’t understand how the law affects them,” he said.
“But we have not seen any problems like that in past elections.”
Kim Tieng, a cashier for ABC BBQ restaurant in the capital’s Boeung Keng Kang III neighbourhood, said authorities had not informed the owner of the restaurant that anything would change or that the establishment would have to stop serving alcohol on June 3 and 4.
“We are running the restaurant as normal,” she said. “And we don’t have the day off either because most of the staff is registered to vote in Phnom Penh.”
Tieng added that if the election and alcohol ban disrupted regular business operations, it would naturally cause a loss of profits on both food and beverage sales.
“If we can’t serve alcohol for two days, we will not able to make profits, and it will impact our business and customers who want to drink and enjoy their weekend,” she said.
In Siem Reap, Kang Sivkong, the service manager for Meng BBQ, a Khmer-style restaurant near the city’s famed tourist hub Pub Street, said that while a temporary alcohol ban had some merits during a pivotal election, he was not aware of the government’s order.
“We have not received any information from the government banning the sale of alcohol,” he said.
“If it is applied, it would be good for our citizens to go and vote, but it would annoy the international tourists as they want to have the choice to enjoy their visit as they please.”
However, Luu Meng, renowned chef and co-chair of the Government-Private Sector Working Group on Tourism, said bars and restaurants should take the directive seriously, despite the loss of profits over the weekend, to ensure stability during the election.
“We have known about this directive for weeks, and it has been circulated throughout the Hotel Association’s newsletter numerous times,” he said.
“I think it is important for us to ensure safety during the election and despite a loss of revenue we can recuperate in the following days if we look at our experiences from past elections.”
Nevertheless, he did not expect that all bars and restaurants would follow the prime minister’s directive, either due to negligence or from being uninformed about ambiguous penalties that he said he could not recall.
“I am sure certain bars and restaurants will find a way to serve alcohol even though many have been invited by the government to attend a briefing about the penalties,” he said.
“If businesses want to follow the order, they will. If not, they will ignore it.”