The past year has been an eventful one in Cambodia, characterised – and marred – by crises like the global Covid-19 pandemic and severe local flooding, and here, at the start of the new year, The Post looks back on a dozen key issues that shaped our 2020.
Seven-storey building collapses:
The collapse of a seven-storey guesthouse under construction in Kep province on January 3 killed 36 people, including 14 women and six children, and injured 23 others. The collapse was attributed to the foreman’s disregard for reinforcing the concrete with rebar and removing scaffolding too early.
The building’s owners, master builder Euk Saron and his wife Chhiv Sothy, were arrested and referred to court for prosecution. The government provided $10,000 to workers who sustained minor injuries and to $20,000 each to those with major injuries. Families who suffered a fatality received $50,000 and a 10 million riel ($2,500) funeral stipend. Families who lost breadwinners were given even more.
Trial begins for Kem Sokha:
The Phnom Penh municipal court began hearing the case of Kem Sokha, the former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on January 15, more than two years after he was arrested in September, 2017 for conspiring with a foreign power under Article 443 of the Criminal Code.
Hearings were held two days per week until the trial was indefinitely suspended in mid-March on account of the outbreak of Covid-19. Sokha faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
Cambodia allows Westerdam to dock:
The government allowed the MS Westerdam cruise ship to dock at Preah Sihanouk port on February 13 after six countries had denied it over fears of Covid-19 infection. The Holland America Line Company ship was carrying over 2,000 passengers from 41 countries.
Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that allowing the ship to dock in an emergency was a humanitarian matter that required Cambodia to act and rescue the vessel in a spirit of community and free from discrimination. Among the passengers, there were 651 Americans, 171 Canadians, 127 British and 91 Dutch.
After the ship docked, representatives of governments and institutions and around the world, including US President Donald Trump and World Health Organisation (WHO) Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed Cambodia’s courage and expressed gratitude for the government’s assistance.
Covid-19 is detected in Cambodia and containment begins:
On January 27, Cambodia recorded its first confirmed case of Covid-19. By December 31, there had been 372 cases identified, most of which were imported. Remarkably, none of the patients have died from their infections.
To address the problem, the prime minister chaired the inter-ministerial ad hoc Committee to Combat Covid-19, comprised five deputy chairmen – the ministers of the interior, defence, finance, health and Council of Ministers – and 27 more officials from relevant ministries and institutions.
The committee has implemented many measures including cancelling holidays and major ceremonies, closing the national borders to tourists, suspending visits to prison inmates and prohibiting large public gatherings.
Businesses such as gyms, casinos, pubs and dance clubs were temporarily ordered to cease operations. Likewise, schools and child care facilities were closed, and students began taking courses via online instruction.
When economic and social activities were gradually allowed to resume, school children and business patrons were expected to abide by a slew of guidelines instructing members of the public to wear face masks, wash hands with disinfectants and maintain physical separation.
KTVs, theatres, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlours and public transport implemented higher standards of hygiene as well as checking the health of guests with electronic thermometers.
Additionally, migrant workers returning from abroad and other passengers arriving to Cambodia were subject to health inspections and quarantine of up to 14 days before being allowed to continue on to their intended destinations.
Hun Sen and the Ministry of Health frequently reminded the public to be very cautious and remain diligent in preventative measures. A public service announcement can be heard prior to connecting telephone calls which states: “We are united to combat Covid-19 according to the guidance of the health ministry.”
As a result of containment efforts by the government, compliance by the public and treatment of Covid-19 patients by healthcare facilities, Cambodia’s response to the pandemic has been ranked as the most effective in the world for controlling and minimising its impact.
State of emergency law is drafted:
President of the Senate Say Chhum signed a Royal Code on April 29 preparing for the imposition of a declaration of a national state of emergency. The Constitutional Council of Cambodia (CCC) had announced two days earlier that such a law would be legal under article 22 of the constitution.
Consisting of five chapters and 12 articles, the law was proposed by Minister of Justice Koeut Rith and initially approved on April 10 by the National Assembly before passing a final review on April 17.
Government officials were quick to stipulate that the law had been prepared as a tool to combat the Covid-19 crisis in the event that the situation in the country deteriorated to a point that its use would be deemed to have become necessary.
Throughout the ensuing pandemic, however, an official state of emergency by royal decree has yet to be declared, even as many other countries enforced similar laws.
Addressing concerns about the prospect of excessive law enforcement, the prime minister noted that based on his more than 40 years of experience governing the nation, he figured the likelihood of actually enacting such a decree was only 0.01 per cent.
Traffic enforcement increases:
The Road Traffic Law was amended on May 1, significantly raising fines for moving violations while more than 3,000 police officers have been deployed on main roads across the country to monitor traffic, inspect vehicles and drivers and issue citations according to Sub-Decree 39 in response to an alarming uptick in traffic accidents.
Imposition of the fines has come under criticism from drivers and others requesting that the stricter law enforcement be delayed on account of financial hardships faced by the public in light of the Covid-19 problem.
National Police chief Neth Savoeun claimed, however, that the single aim of strengthening the law and its enforcement was to reduce the accidents and damage to the property. He said that the fines would serve as a lesson for drivers.
Institute for Road Safety acting director Kong Ratanak said the measures had produced positive results. More motorists had renewed their driver’s licences, had their vehicles safety-inspected and cautiously abided by the Road Traffic Law.
According to a report from the National Road Safety Committee (NRSC), traffic accidents decreased by 23 per cent over the first 10 months of last year compared to the year before, resulting in 779 fewer incidents, dropping from 3,453 in 2019 to 2,674.
Interior minister and NRSC chairman Sar Kheng urged police to arrest drivers responsible for hit-and-run accidents and bring them to justice. He also called on drivers and passengers to remain careful as traffic accidents were an ever-present danger.
Campaign addresses the backlog of court cases:
Justice minister Koeut Rith launched an initiative on May 18 to address a backlog of court cases and prison overcrowding around the country. He affirmed that all measures implemented by the ministry would strictly adhere to existing legal procedures in order to uphold principles of justice and accuracy. He stressed that corruption must not be allowed to compromise the integrity of the legal system.
The minister also welcomed participation from civil society organisations in monitoring legal proceedings. As a result of the campaign, by December 25, nearly 89 per cent – or 35,100 out of 39,152 pending criminal cases – had been addressed.
Former Tuol Sleng prison chief dies:
While serving a life sentence handed down by the Supreme Court at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), Kaing Guek Eav, the former Tuol Sleng prison chief better known as Duch, died on September 2 at the age of 77 in the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital after a long illness.
Following his death, his body was cremated at the Chak Angre Krom pagoda in Phnom Penh in the presence of a small number of relatives. Duch was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010 by the lower court at the ECCC for crimes against humanity and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 concerning the deaths of at least 12,272 victims at the Tuol Sleng prison.
Unsatisfied with the ruling, he appealed against it, and in 2012, the Supreme Court at the ECCC sentenced him to life in prison. He served the sentence in the Kandal provincial prison from 2013 until his death.
Floods cover the countryside:
Cambodia experienced rain-induced floods in mid-October, flooding the capital and 19 provinces across the country. A report on October 24 by the National Committee for Disaster Management said that the natural disaster had affected 136,442 families representing 545,768 people.
In total, 43 drowning deaths were reported while 925 schools, 305 pagodas, 270,007ha of rice and 88,779ha of other crops, as well as 2,301km of national and provincial roads, had been affected by the floods.
The prime minister deployed all means at his disposal to mitigate the damage, describing the floods as the worst to hit the country during his tenure in government. He offered condolences to families who had lost members and oversaw the distribution of relief donations to victims.
November 3 event and November 28 community transmission:
Although Cambodia had brought the Covid-19 pandemic under control through October, the next month saw two major events spark new outbreaks.
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto visited Cambodia on November 3, having initially tested negative for the virus upon his entry, then testing positive for it the next day when entering Thailand.
As a result, senior Cambodian officials who had been in contact with Szijjarto, including Hun Sen, and a total of 1,802 people were instructed to quarantine themselves for 14 days. A total of four people, including a member of the National Assembly, tested positive for the infection.
In a separate event on November 28, Cambodia saw its first cases of local transmission of Covid-19 within the community. The wife of director-general of prisons Chhem Savuth and five family members tested positive for Covid-19, sparking a massive and urgent effort to conduct contact-tracing and testing of people who might have been exposed.
The prime minister and health officials urged all people who had been in direct or indirect contact to be tested and quarantined. He also called on people not to blame each other but to cooperate for the sake of society and averting wider spread of the virus.
In the weeks following the outbreak, 18,829 people – including the interior minister and many subordinate officials – were quarantined for 14 days. Of the total, 41 tested positive.
The Ministry of Labour, Youth and Sport again instructed schools to close and later announced that grade 12 national examination candidates would pass automatically without sitting the exam.
Cash support is given to the poor affected by Covid-19:
From June 25 to December 24, the national government provided a series of cash payments to 681,999 poor and vulnerable families affected by the pandemic, totalling $169.38 million. Subsidies were made to families holding Poor ID cards with each family receiving at least 120,000 riel (almost $30).
Because the Covid-19 crisis had yet to subside, Hun Sen announced on December 15 that the government would issue a fourth round of payments set to continue into January, February and March for which a reserve of $200 million had been made available.
Distributing the funds was delegated to local authorities, prompting a warning from the prime minister of strict measures to be taken against people who attempted to defraud the system. The Ministry of Planning subsequently identified 14,400 incidences of irregularities.
Covid-19 vaccine purchases:
Hun Sen announced on December 8 that the government planned to buy Covid-19 vaccines for distribution to the nation’s people free of charge, prioritising people at high-risk.
Following the announcement, members of the public responded enthusiastically and began making private donations for the cause. By December 28, a fund established by the government had received more than $55 million.
On December 17, an inter-ministerial meeting by video conference with major aid organisations and partner nations discussed plans for procurement of the vaccines and implementing a vaccination programme.
The government announced a goal to inoculate at least 10 million people against Covid-19 and potentially as many as 13 million people which would require 26 million doses for a two-step vaccination.
The COVAX Facility would provide vaccines for 20 per cent of the country’s population, amounting to three to four million people. The government declared it would assume responsibility for vaccinating the rest of the people by seeking aid from development partners.
First to receive the vaccine will be doctors and front-line health officials as well as teachers, members of the armed forces and prison officials, followed by judges, attorneys and court officers and other government officials whose work necessitates interacting with members of the public.