The Kingdom’s acting head of state Say Chhum on March 11 promulgated the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases.

The promulgation came the same day the Senate unanimously passed it without any change, with politicians differing over the hasty approval of the bill and the heavy penalties it incurs.

Comprising six chapters and 18 articles, the law defines measures, penalties, scope and the enforcement authority.

In a press release, the Senate said the law is aimed at protecting public health and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.

“The law demonstrates the government’s willingness to assume greater responsibility for the protection of people’s lives, security and public order as the country faces threats posed by Covid-19 and other contagious diseases,” the Senate said in a press release.

Minister of Justice Koeut Rith said while defending the bill at the Senate that such law is warranted in the face of the pandemic. During this time, he said some countries have made new laws while others have added measures to existing laws, and some others have implemented heavy measures to curb transmission.

“The country that applies the strictest measures can most effectively control the spread of the disease, and transmission is now dropping. Some countries declare a state of emergency while others decide to lock down for some time,” he said.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in late 2019, Cambodia has prepared a state of emergency law while some countries hastily adopted it to contain the pandemic. But a state of emergency, Koeut Rith said, cannot be enforced in Cambodia yet as it could devastate the country’s economy. This prompted the government to propose this contagious disease control law, he explained.

According to the draft law, offenders face six months to 20 years in prison and a fine of between two and 20 million riel ($500 and $5,000).

Koeut Rith said: “The penalties are to punish anyone who causes danger to the life of the people and public health. The law will not punish those who respect the law and the government measures to prevent the spread of the disease and those who contribute to bringing the country to normalcy.”

“Making a law to protect public life and health, where is the wrong? Making a law to penalise bad people or criminals who cause danger to Cambodia and those who want to destroy life and health of the people, where is the wrong?” he asked rhetorically.

This is the second law that Cambodia has made to prevent the spread of a disease, with the first one adopted in 2002 to control the spread of HIV/AIDS which is currently still valid for enforcement, he said.

The law was proposed by the government on February 28 and passed by the National Assembly on March 5 following the February 20 outbreak of community transmission, which has seen cases rise to 652 and one confirmed death as of March 11.

President of Khmer Will Party Kong Monika said while it is not wrong to make this law, the government needs to raise public awareness. The bill should first receive input from relevant stakeholders and experts.

“This law could put additional pressure on people who are already facing severe livelihood problems. The government should think more on how to reduce the impacts of Covid-19 on the people,” he said.

Yang Saing Koma, founding member of the Grassroots Democratic Party, said he did not object this law.

“But this law was made in a very short time after Covid-19 started over a year ago. The fine and jail terms stated in the law seem too heavy. Before this law is enforced, the public should be made clearly aware of it.

“The government should spend around three weeks to let authorities at all levels raise public awareness,” he said.

Former opposition lawmaker Ou Chanrath, who is seeking to form his own party, disagreed, saying the law is not bad and the penalty is not too heavy as long as it is fairly enforced.

“If it is fairly enforced without aiming at cracking down on any specific group, this law looks okay to me and it can be a good one,” he said.

Justice ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the swift process to pass this law was in response to the current situation. The law would be made aware to the people before it is enforced and civil society organisations can still provide input to the law, he said.