Hun Sen’s Coronavirus Crackdown

The Cambodian prime minister is using the pandemic as cover to silence his remaining critics.

Police block drivers in Cambodia during the coronavirus pandemic
Police block drivers from passing at a checkpoint set up at the border between Phnom Penh and neighboring Kandal province in Cambodia on April 10. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

On April 10, Cambodia’s parliament passed a sweeping new state of emergency law granting the government the power to impose its will to protect “national security and social order”—using the army if necessary—in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Days earlier, a leaked draft of the law had alarmed human rights groups, which feared the legislation would embolden Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to take an even more authoritarian line. Since shutting down the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017, Hun Sen’s government has cracked down on opposition activists and online dissenters.

Days before the law was passed, police arrested Sovann Rithy, the publisher of the social media news platform TVFB. His crime? Posting a quote from Hun Sen’s speech earlier that day. The prime minister had advised motorbike taxi drivers who go bankrupt amid coronavirus containment measures to “sell your motorbikes for spending money.” “The government does not have the ability to help,” he said —something that National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun later claimed was a joke. On April 9, a judge charged Rithy with incitement.

Initially reluctant to respond to the coronavirus, Hun Sen is now using the pandemic to accelerate the crackdown against his perceived enemies. The human rights organization Licadho has recorded 26 cases of people arrested for incitement for allegedly spreading “fake news” about COVID-19, including a 14-year-old girl, as of April 10. For those arrested and their families, getting clarity about the charges from the corrupt Cambodian police force is tricky. The family of one detainee, opposition activist and teacher Keo Thai, told Radio Free Asia that he had been taken into custody without a warrant and they had “no idea” why he had been arrested. (The police said it was for conspiracy to commit treason.)

In most of these cases, detainees have been arrested and released: a way to scare others into keeping criticism of the Cambodian government’s anti-coronavirus strategy to themselves, said Phil Robertson, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch. The exception to the detain-and-release strategy appears to be if the person arrested is a member of the now-outlawed opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party—around one-third of recent arrests, according to Licadho. “The whole crackdown is serving a wider political agenda to persecute and ultimately destroy any formal political opposition to his rule,” Robertson said.

It’s not surprising that Hun Sen is conflating criticism of the government’s coronavirus response with threats to political stability and public order. Since 2017, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has used similar justification to systematically shut down independent media outlets and outlaw the main opposition party. That the authorities would again arrest opposition activists and others for threatening public order is “sadly predictable,” said Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

The focus of the government’s coronavirus response appears to be stifling the dissemination of news about the pandemic.

The focus of the government’s coronavirus response appears to be stifling the dissemination of news about the pandemic “rather than being proactive and releasing reliable information to keep the population informed,” said Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Maintaining respect for human rights is crucial in this unprecedented time of global crisis, and actions taken in response to the virus must be driven by legitimate public health goals.”

Hun Sen doesn’t seem to be primarily motivated by public health so much as by exercising control over the population while protecting the country’s commercial interests. On April 7, the prime minister canceled the national Khmer New Year holiday and enacted a short-lived travel ban travel ban between towns. But then, Hun Sen insisted that businesses—including garment factories, the lifeblood of the Cambodian economy—remain open. “The safest places are working places,” he said. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian garment workers are ferried each day to poorly ventilated factories, where they work in perilous and crowded conditions—making social distancing impossible and viral spread inevitable.

Since the crisis began, the Cambodian government has only pinned blame on countries that it sees as politically safe to target. When news of the coronavirus outbreak in China first broke in late January, Hun Sen initially refused to acknowledge the threat. The government’s primary concern then was to avoid jeopardizing its close relationship with China. As other countries in the region restricted travel to China, the prime minister visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 5. As neighboring Thailand and Vietnam mobilized serious efforts to contain the virus, Cambodia hosted its largest-ever joint military exercise with China. And Hun Sen allowed the Westerdam cruise ship to dock in the port of Sihanoukville after it was turned away from five countries, offering handshakes to the disembarking passengers.

Hun Sen’s strategy appears to have paid off geopolitically, particularly as the coronavirus threatened to disrupt supply chains to Cambodia’s garment industry, which accounts for 16 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of its export earnings. By leveraging Cambodia’s special relationship with China, Hun Sen lobbied Beijing to resume material supplies to factories, even during China’s lockdown, said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales. Cambodia was also the first Southeast Asian country to receive medical aid from China, on March 23, despite having reported just 87 cases and zero deaths at the time.

Having downplayed the severity of the virus for weeks, Hun Sen abruptly changed his tune when the coronavirus epicenter shifted to Europe and then to the United States in March. Once Westerners were potential carriers, Hun Sen regarded the coronavirus as a serious enough threat to warrant serious containment measures. For the Cambodian government, preserving goodwill with the United States or the European Union—an object of particular ire since it withdrew parts of a preferential trade agreement with Cambodia in February—is a far lower priority than showing support for China. Hun Sen was quick to bar entry for citizens of the United States, Italy, Spain, Germany, and France. In a country usually welcoming to foreigners, the effect was jarring. Signs appeared in storefronts in Phnom Penh, the capital, barring foreigners from entering.

Cambodia’s ethnic and religious minorities have also become targets of online abuse after being singled out in the government’s reporting on COVID-19. Much of the backlash has focused on the Cham ethnic minority, who make up the majority of Cambodia’s 300,000 Muslims. After a group of Cambodians returning from a conference held by the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health issued a press release identifying the cases as among the Muslim community. A flurry of Islamophobic Facebook posts directed at Cambodia’s Muslims followed, and some began shunning Cham-owned businesses. “The Ministry of Health created a problem that didn’t need to exist,” said Robertson, of Human Rights Watch.

The Cambodian government’s deflections of blame serve a dual purpose. They obscure the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, pleasing China by tacitly supporting its narrative that the West is primarily responsible for mishandling the containment of the virus. Within Cambodia, shifting the blame also sows discord and distrust of Western expatriates, many of whom work for human rights groups, just as Hun Sen again steps up authoritarian measures. This “divide and conquer” mentality is another page out of Beijing’s book.

Hun Sen has moved closer to total consolidation of power in Cambodia for years, backed by Chinese money and political support. With the pandemic as an excuse, he might realize his iron-fisted ambitions at last.

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern

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