With the Kingdom continuing to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, the government has introduced a series of measures to contain the pandemic, from curfew and inter-provincial travel ban to a lockdown of the entire capital.
The restrictions, however, couldn’t seem to deter some people from venturing out, prompting the government to designate some Covid-19 hotspots in Phnom Penh as Red Zones, where residents are forbidden from leaving their homes.
But despite the designation, some residents were still seen roaming the streets, pushing the local authorities to take the matter into their own hands and turn to their last resort: sticks.
A recent video clip showing police whipping those who have violated lockdown orders and photos of them carrying a batch of sticks have been shared widely on social media.
Ministers, governors, authorities and members of the public seem to be at odds as to whether the police should beat lockdown violators with sticks.
In a letter on April 21 after the video went viral, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said while he commended the authorities’ efforts in strictly enforcing the government’s Covid-19 measures, they should not go too far.
“Let me remind all law enforcement officers to perform their duties with tolerance, discipline, professionalism, good manners and thoroughness. They must refrain from violence while enforcing government edicts.”
“I urge you all to keep calm and persevere in order to earn the support and participation of people from all walks of life in this important mission to successfully fight against Covid-19,” he said, adding that the public should also join with the authorities to break the chain of transmission and return the country to normal.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith echoed the sentiment, saying law enforcement should not resort to violence if the wrongdoers do not resist.
“Don’t forget the words “serving the people”. In India, police beat violators to such an extent that residents of a whole commune eventually responded in kind, chasing them away. Citizens may commit mistakes, but if the authorities resorted to violence, then they would be in the wrong,” Kanharith said in a Facebook post on April 21.
However, the Phnom Penh Municipal Administration leadership told local media Fresh News that such practices did not constitute an act of violence but were rather warranted to enforce Covid-19 measures and deal with disobedient residents in lockdown areas.
Municipal governor Khuong Sreng said chasing lockdown violators back into their homes with sticks was like parents educating their children. Should those people resist and refuse to follow the authority’s orders, they will face fines and legal action, he said.
Municipal police spokesman San Sokseyha said such practices were first applied in the red zones but that they could be applied anywhere in the lockdown areas where people are still defiantly violating lockdown orders.
“We have explained to our people the orders and the relevant laws. If they still provoke such actions and don’t follow our instructions, they will face the law.
“Our joint forces from commune and district take turns to enforce the orders. We have to control the situation 24 hours a day, and not only for enforcing the lockdown order but to prevent all crimes from happening,” Sokseyha said.
Similarly, Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn told the police and Military Police to use strict measures against any individualls who are defiantly disrespectful to the administrative orders.
Sophorn gave the instruction during a meeting on April 21 after he observed that some people were still driving their motorbikes and walking on the streets of Takmao town despite the lockdown.
“If people are still out on the streets like this, then the authorities and the armed forces should just step down from their jobs,” he said.
According to Article 12 of the law on the control of Covid-19 and other contagious diseases, the authorities who use their powers in a manner which violates the goals of this law have to be held accountable for their actions according to existing regulations if their actions affect the rights and freedoms of others, harms them physically or causes damage to private property.
Minister of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said he heard that sticks were used in the Red Zones to force people to stay in their homes. In legal principle, he said the police can use any equipment to enforce the law such as weapons, baton sticks or handcuffs and these can be regarded as permitted for use.
“But all such equipment is used differently according to the situation in order to ensure that law enforcement is carried to protect security and social order. They can’t use these sticks to beat or torture people, just to enforce the law,” he said.
Malin said if the police just simply used the sticks to beat people who committed no wrongdoing, this would mean they violated the laws and rights of the citizen. But if there is a violation of the law, they can use any means to stop it from continuing.
Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun begged to differ, however. He said that before beating citizens with sticks, the authorities should ask themselves what laws allow beatings and in which article.
He said they should question themselves as to whether the lockdown orders had been widely disseminated and whether they understood what people’s immediate needs were to prompt them to go outside. But he urged the public to stop violating lockdown measures under any circumstances.
“An order is effective only when the people participate in its enforcement. But the authorities have to enforce the order with reason, fairness, non-violence and morality. They can’t use these measures to make people suffer,” he said.