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Jabs, ASEM13, new stadium: Cautious optimism builds in 2021

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Two food delivery men ride past a Red Zone during the lockdown in Stung Mean Chey I commune of Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on May 13, 2021. Heng Chivoan

Jabs, ASEM13, new stadium: Cautious optimism builds in 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic dominated the 2021 news globally and locally, but other notable events took place even if people were too busy with thermometers, masks and hand sanitiser to pay much attention to them at the time. Here’s some of Cambodia’s highlights over the course of 2021 starting with a pandemic recap.

February 20 community outbreak

In what was likely inevitable given today’s globalised and interconnected world, the coronavirus continued to spread within the Kingdom’s communities with the third wave beginning on February 20, 2021, despite restrictions, testing and quarantines required for entry from abroad.

Dubbed the “February 20 Community Event”, it was traced back to the N8 nightclub near Olympic Stadium in central Phnom Penh, where 32 people tested positive for Covid-19 in just over 10 hours.

Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech that day to announce the bad news.

Thus began 2021’s series of business closures, bans on group gatherings and alcohol sales, lockdowns, curfews and other protective measures to minimise the casualty count for the virus while the work of vaccinating everyone was underway.

Emergency powers written into law

Those restrictions – deemed necessary for saving lives – were made possible when Senate president Say Chhum, acting as head of state while King Norodom Sihamoni was abroad, signed the Law on Measures to Control the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases and promulgated it on March 11, 2021.

Comprised of six chapters and 18 articles, the law gave the powers to the government that were necessary to establishing the preventive health and administrative measures that would protect people’s lives and public health, maintain public order as well as reducing the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in Cambodia, according to Minister of Justice Koeut Rith

The law stipulated penalties for individuals who failed to comply with the measures, imposing fines of between one million and 20 million riel ($250 and $5,000) and possible prison terms of six months to 20 years.

The ‘new normal’

In addition to the Covid-19 law, the government on March 21 issued a new sub-decree on health measures and another sub-decree on administrative measures on March 31 including legal standards to contain the pandemic.

The sub-decree on health measures mandated things like temperature checks, face masks, social distancing, sample collection for testing, medical checkups, quarantines, treatment, vaccinations, handling of bodies of deceased patients with Covid-19 and fines for the violators of the required measures.

The borders were closed or restricted for entry and exit, with lengthy quarantines required for anyone entering from abroad.

The sub-decree on administrative measures stipulated the restrictions or bans on travelling, mass gatherings, jobs or occupational activities deemed high risk for spreading the virus, entry to or exit from areas with known Covid-19 outbreaks, curfews and lockdowns.

The sub-decrees established the capital and provinces quarantine and treatment centres, vaccination sites, crematoriums and burial sites.

First in the capital and then in other urban areas of the Kingdom, the zoning system with Red, orange and yellow zones was put in place reflecting whether a commune was high, moderate or low risk for Covid-19 transmission. Areas designated as red zones were placed in lockdown with only the most essential activities permitted outside of homes and travel to and from them restricted temporarily until the outbreaks there were contained.

The government also imposed travel restrictions in the capital and on each province with curfews and closure of markets and schools. The usual celebrations of Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben festival and other large celebrations, including weddings, all had to be prohibited for the safeguarding of public health and safety.

Fortunately, the policies put in place by the Ministry of Health and the government proved sufficient to their purposes and Cambodia was able to limit its loss of life due to the pandemic. With 120,507 officially recorded cases, Cambodia has only had 3,012 Covid-19 deaths nationally through the end of 2021 compared to the nearly 5.5 million estimated Covid-19 deaths worldwide.

Vaccines, vaccines and more vaccines

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The first shipment of China’s Sinopharm vaccines arriving at Phnom Penh International Airport on February 7, 2021. Heng Chivoan

Cambodia received its first 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccines on February 7 from the Chinese government and then on March 3 the Covax Facility – a global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines – sent 320,000 AstraZeneca jabs. The pace of shipments only increased from there with Cambodia receiving over 41 million doses through donations and purchases and bilateral agreements in 2021.

The majority of the vaccines were Sinopharm and Sinovac purchased from China or donated by the Chinese government, but other countries stepped up with assistance through bilateral agreements as well.

Japan donated over a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines, the US donated more than a million of the Johnson & Johnson jabs, the UK donated over 400,000 doses of AstraZeneca and Australia donated more than 2.3 million doses of Pfizer just recently in December.

Covid-19 jabs campaign

Cambodia began its vaccinations on February 10, 2021, at four hospitals in Phnom Penh, before launching its nationwide Covid-19 jab campaign in early April starting from the capital and a few other population centres and spreading out from there through the government’s so-called blossoming strategy.

Although Prime Minister Hun Sen was not initially vaccinated due to his age and waited until March 4 to receive the senior citizen-approved AstraZeneca jab, his son Hun Manet stepped up to be the first person vaccinated in the country with the Sinopharm jab on February 10 at Calmette Hospital in the capital.

The jab drive was run by the national Covid-19 vaccination committee headed by health ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine in coordination with medical teams from the Ministry of National Defence.

By December, 2021, Cambodia had easily hit all of its vaccination targets and goals and as a result the Kingdom was able to vaccinate an astonishing 89.14 per cent of its total population of around 16 million with at least one dose and several million people have now received their third dose, or booster shot.

Although world rankings for vaccinations vary somewhat according to the criteria being used, Cambodia easily places in the top 10 countries in the world for Covid-19 vaccines coverage across all rankings and it places in the top five countries globally when its own internally generated numbers are relied upon.

This is an impressive accomplishment for a developing nation to have achieved amid a global pandemic and an economic downturn when the number of people overall in low-income countries globally who have received even one dose of vaccines is still under 10 per cent as 2022 begins, according to the World Health Organisation’s data.

Kingdom fully reopened

Prime Minister Hun Sen declared the country reopen on November 1 after the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths had dropped off due to the health and administrative measures followed by the roll-out of vaccinations across the country.

By December 1, all of Cambodia’s businesses were once again up and running with no restrictions aside from the usual health measures in the context of Covid-19.

The official end to the February 20 event came on December 20 – 10 months after it began – with Hun Sen’s announcement in a special audio address to the nation after the health ministry confirmed it had not found any new deaths and no new infections for the first time since the third wave began.

However, Hun Sen also said this was only the end to the February 20 event and that the fight against Covid-19 would continue.

“I can announce an end to the February 20 event. But I don’t mean an end to the fight against Covid-19. The Covid-19 battle is still an ongoing task that cannot be ignored,” he said.

The law on sole Cambodian citizenship

Following an “erroneous” newspaper report from abroad claiming that Hun Sen possessed a Cypriot passport – which was immediately retracted with an apology issued by the publisher when its veracity was challenged – the prime minister decided to address the controversy directly through Cambodian law to erase all possible doubts on the matter once and for all.

On November 3, King Sihamoni promulgated amendments to several articles of the Constitution that mandate sole Cambodian citizenship for holders of the top four leadership positions – the prime minister and presidents of the National Assembly, Senate and Constitutional Council.

Cambodia chairs the ASEP 11 and ASEM13

Cambodia hosted the 11th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting (ASEP11) on November 16 and the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) on November 25-26.

Cambodia was given the hosting honours in advance of its chairmanship of ASEAN for 2022, as is the standard pattern for these two summits and the many other smaller diplomatic forums that come attached to them.

ASEP11 was held virtually and co-chaired by National Assembly president Heng Samrin and Senate president Say Chhum. The meeting was also attended by Members of Parliament or legislators from 31 countries in Europe and Asia and representatives from two partner organisations – the European Parliament and the ASEAN Secretariat.

Then on November 25-26, Cambodia also hosted the larger ASEM13 meeting online under the theme “Strengthening Multilateralism for Shared Growth”. The meeting was chaired by Hun Sen with the participation of the heads of state and diplomats from 51 countries on both the Asian and European continents along with the presidents of the EU and European Council and the secretary-general of ASEAN.

At the end of the meeting, the ASEM leaders adopted three significant documents, namely the ASEM13 Chair’s Statement, the Phnom Penh Statement on the Post-Covid-19 Socio-Economic Recovery and the Way Forward on ASEM Connectivity.

Hun Sen described ASEM13 as a sign that Asia and Europe are committed to working together and called on the leaders of the two continents to cooperate more closely in their shared commitments to protecting peace, security, sustainable development and inclusive growth based on respect for international law.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the Supreme Advisory Council to the King and head of the FUNCINPEC party, passed away after a long illness on November 28 at the age of 77 in France, where he was undergoing medical treatment.

After the arrival of his body on a charter flight on December 5, Prince Ranariddh was cremated on December 8 in front of Botumvatey Pagoda in Phnom Penh following a large funeral procession.

Born on January 2, 1944, Prince Ranariddh was the second-born son of King Father Norodom Sihanouk and the half-brother of King Sihamoni. In his early political career, Prince Ranariddh served as the First Prime Minister following the 1993 election organised by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and then as president of the National Assembly after the 1998 election. Before entering in politics, the prince lived in France where he had a career as a law professor and academic researcher.

His funeral was attended by King Sihamoni, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen as well as many other diplomats, dignitaries and friends.

Flags were flown at half-mast and local broadcast stations ran programming appropriate to the nation’s somber mood in homage to the late prince.

Morodok Techo National Stadium

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The Morodok Techo National Stadium is inaugurated on December 18, 2021. Hong Menea

The new Morodok Techo National Sports Complex and Stadium was inaugurated by Hun Sen – who described it as a “national achievement” – on December 18.

A prior ceremonial event to mark the completion of its construction was attended by Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on September 12.

The complex took eight years to complete after construction began in April 2013 at a cost of nearly $160 million, financed with help from China.

The new stadium stands in in Prek Ta Sek and Prek Leap communes of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district and is slated to be used to host the 2023 Southeast Asia Games and other events. It is built to meet international competition standards with a seating capacity of 60,000.

With Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian in attendance at the December 18 opening, Hun Sen thanked the Chinese government and people for providing a great deal of generous support and assistance to Cambodia, with the stadium being but one of the latest of many benefits resulting from the “ironclad” bonds of friendship between the two nations.

CPP endorses Hun Manet as PM candidate

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Lieutenant General Hun Manet was officially elected by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as its candidate for the nation’s top job after his father’s retirement.

The endorsement was made at the 43rd Meeting of the CPP’s Central Committee at the party headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district on the morning of December 24.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that after the party’s Standing Committee had presented a number of possible candidates, the committee had decided unanimously to designate Manet as the party’s successor for prime ministerial candidate.

Manet graduated with a degree from the US Military Academy at West Point, a master’s degree from New York University and a PhD from the University of Bristol in the UK, all of them in economics.

Manet currently serves as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the commander of the army’s infantry.

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