Cambodia’s emergency law: Another of Hun Sen’s weapons against dissent?

By Carlos Sardiña Galache.

Bangkok Desk, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- Cambodia’s parliament is processing a state of emergency law to combat the COVID-19 epidemic in the country, which would give unlimited powers to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, raising the concerns of human rights organizations and an increasingly cornered opposition.

The draft law to govern the country in a state of emergency was unanimously passed by the National Assembly on Apr. 7 and is expected to be ratified by the Senate on Friday.

It gives the government power to conduct surveillance on all telecommunications, ban or restrict distribution of information, restrict freedom of movement, association and assembly, and seize private property, according to Amnesty International.

“The law will give legitimacy to Hun Sen to use an even tighter grip on the freedoms and liberties enshrined in the constitution. Most critical are the freedom of speech, of expression and political rights because the opposition and human rights defenders will continue to speak up and speak out,” Mu Sochua, a key figure in the persecuted Cambodian opposition and former vice-president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), told EFE.

The CNRP, the popular main opposition party in Cambodia, was dissolved in 2017 by the Supreme Court ahead of the country’s July 2018 general election in which it was seen as the only real challenger to Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

As a result, Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, and his CPP swept the election, winning all seats in parliament and effectively making the country a one-party state.

Many of the CNRP’s leaders have been arrested or are in exile, including Mu Sochua.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis (122 cases have been detected in the country so far) is being used by the government “to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government’s response,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said at the end of March.

The most recent example is the case of journalist Sovann Rithy, who was arrested and charged Thursday with “incitement to commit a felony” for posting on his Facebook profile an excerpt from a speech given by Hun Sen in which the leader was quoted as saying: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”

Cambodia has an extremely poor healthcare system and the impact of the epidemic in the country is difficult to determine. Mu Sochua said that “so far around 9,000 tests have been conducted for a population of 16 million.”

In mid-February, the government allowed the docking of the “Westerdam” cruise ship, with more than 2,000 people aboard, after several countries rejected it for fear of possible coronavirus cases. Hun Sen went to the port in Sihanoukville to receive the passengers, which earned him praise from United States President Donald Trump and World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The government was initially criticized for not taking the crisis seriously enough and in recent weeks it has been forced to take measures such as the cancellation of the Cambodian New Year holidays, the closure of borders and the suspension of flights. But the opposition has claimed that it has not taken measures to cushion the economic impact of the crisis.

The human rights and democracy situation in Cambodia led the European Union on Feb. 12 to partially withdraw preferential trade tariffs to the Southeast Asian country. This was denounced by the European Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia for its potential effects on the livelihoods of the country’s workers. The garment industry employs around 700,000 people, with the EU accounting for around 45 percent of the country’s exports.

Now, the garment industry is being hit even harder, this time by the pandemic. It was initially due to the shortage of raw materials from China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and the main supplier to the sector in Southeast Asia, and now due to the drop in demand from Europe and the US, and the cancellation of orders.

This has led to the closing of dozens of factories in Cambodia, which could cause the spread of discontent with the government.

“Hun Sen needs the law to prepare for angry and hungry workers when factories are shut down. Other groups heavily affected by the economic impact will very likely join in the protests,” Mu Sochua predicted.

Last week, United Nations experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, sent a letter to the Cambodian government outlying its concerns over the draft emergency law.

“We urge that the appropriate legal measure shall strike the right balance with the respect for human rights, including civil and political rights, as they are fundamental to the success of public health response,” it said.

It also asked the government to provide information on measures taken to ensure compliance of the law with Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights law and standards. EFE-EPA

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