Cambodia Blocks Domestic Travel, Approves Emergency Bill Amid Virus Crisis
Apr 11, 2020

The Cambodian government in the evening of April 9 announced a one-week travel ban covering the entire country, preventing all non-essential travel between provinces and even districts over concerns that droves of garment workers in the capital were planning to meet their families in the countryside during Khmer New Year and spread the coronavirus further.

The ban came into effect on April 9 at midnight and will be in force until April 16, with a few exceptions for government officials, military personnel, emergency service workers, medical workers, waste management and sanitation employees and goods truck drivers. Factory workers can travel to their workplaces, but must register with the labour ministry. Individuals seeking health care are also free to travel, but only in groups of four or less.

The travel ban prevents almost all travel between Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s 24 provinces, though movement within the capital will continue unabated. Traveling between other provinces, with movement down to the district level, has likewise been prohibited.

“Had no better choice,” said prime minister

In a statement, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said that he had “no better choice” but to enact restrictions to protect people’s safety.

As of April 11, Cambodia has reported 120 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Of them 75 have already recovered, and there were so far zero deaths reported. The country has banned travelers from several countries and shut schools and entertainment venues. It has also postponed the official Khmer New Year holiday celebrations.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s parliament on April 10 adopted a controversial legislation to impose a “state of emergency” that gives the government sweeping powers during an emergency amid the current coronavirus pandemic. The draft law was unanimously passed by the National Assembly, which is made up entirely of members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The legislation must still be formally approved by the Senate and Constitutional Council, which are also controlled by the ruling party, before going into effect, and many expect that to be a rubber-stamp exercise. The law would allow more bans on the freedom to travel, as well as cut down on assembling, allow imposing strict curfews and censor broadcast and online information that could “cause public panic or turmoil, damage to national security or confusion about the state of emergency”. It would also allow for strict quarantine or isolation measures in cases of public health threats.

Emergency legislation could pave the way for martial law

It further would give authorities the right to seize and use property and services of legal entities, fix prices of goods, surveil digital communications and close public or private institutions. As a last resort, martial law could be declared “in circumstances in which national security is seriously jeopardised.”

Government critics such as Pech Pisey, executive director of the Cambodian unit of global corruption watchdog Transparency International, said civil society had concerns about the law because the situations that could trigger a state of emergency — such as a threat to national security — were vaguely described and open to interpretation. He said a state of emergency law was “important in principle,” but the way the government is implementing the law should be monitored carefully since there were “no checks and balances” on the use of the law, so that it could potentially be abused.