Prime Minister Hun Sen has appealed for a public understanding of his decision to suspend the Pchum Ben festival amid an outbreak of Covid-19. He said the tough decision was made to avert disaster and save the lives of people.
In an audio message addressing the nation on September 25, he noted that in just the first three days of the 15-day festival, nearly half of all pagodas in Phnom Penh had seen outbreaks, though he did not specify how many cases had been detected.
“I beg monks and all Buddhist followers to understand the decision that I was forced to make. But this is to protect the lives and health of our people. This is to ensure that our country will not see large-scale outbreaks and deaths as in other countries like India, where a large number of transmissions were traced back to a religious event,” he said.
Cambodian Buddhists observe Pchum Ben for 15 days from September 22 to October 6, with the principal festivities celebrated from October 5-7, ending a day after the main day of “great offering”, or Ben Thom, on October 6 coinciding with the new moon. The holiday is dedicated to their ancestors and is an occasion for families to get together.
“As the head of the government, I cannot sit around letting Covid-19 surge and people die due to negligence. I hope our compatriots, monks and all Buddhist followers can understand my decision to ensure the survival of our people.
“If half of all pagodas in Phnom Penh continued to observe Pchum Ben until the main day, how many more monks and laypeople would contract Covid-19?” he asked.
He said Cambodia had vaccinated nearly 13 million of the target population of 14 million, including children as young as six years old. This, he said, may beg the question as to why Covid-19 cases surge despite such a high rate of vaccinations.
“As I have said before, vaccination alone is not enough. It can only reduce transmissions and hospitalisations and prevent infected people from developing severe conditions that can lead to death. It is adherence to health measures that counts in terms of prevention,” he said.
The prime minister said his great concern was that the disease could spread in pagodas and become widespread in the community.
“You can observe religious events every year, but if you die of Covid-19, you will no longer have a chance to celebrate the events.
“If you visit a pagoda only to bring back home a [deadly] disease, it is not worth it,” he said.
He said his decision might have affected the feelings of some people who do not understand the necessity of preventive measures against the highly contagious disease. Some people in the opposition group, he added, have even insulted him for his decision.
“When I saw samples collected at the pagodas for testing, I got goosebumps because if the festival continued, the virus could spread from those pagodas to the community,” he said.
Although Pchum Ben has been suspended, the prime minister said people can still enjoy the three-day public holiday, especially at natural tourist attractions that are properly organised and well-ventilated.