A court in Cambodia on Wednesday ordered the arrest of opposition chief Sam Rainsy on charges of “incitement” after he called on members of the public to disobey an ongoing coronavirus lockdown in the country’s capital region, citing corruption and a lack of aid from the government.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigative Judge Pech Vicheathor issued a warrant for the acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated, saying comments he made could “provoke a serious national security issue” amidst the lockdown. He ordered Sam Rainsy detained for investigation into the allegations.
While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s economy—which leans heavily on the production of textiles—has been battered by a drop in export demand and a series of lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the virus. Migrant workers in next-door Thailand also lost their jobs in lockdowns.
An outbreak that began in March led to the country’s first death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and has since spiraled out of control. Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said Wednesday that 698 people tested positive for COVID-19, while the country’s death toll from the pandemic rose to 88 with a caseload of more than 11,760 people.
The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue a 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao in Kandal province from April 15-28 and require the two cities’ combined 2.3 million residents to adhere to a strict curfew or, in certain “red zones,” stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency.
On Monday, the order was extended for a third week until May 5 and authorities said more time could be added if residents fail to adhere to the measures. Workers from nearly 230 factories in the region have been infected.
Residents of the affected red zone districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao have said they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes, and claim they are running out of supplies.
Authorities have also threatened to fine anyone found in breach of the lockdown between 1-20 million riels (U.S. $250-4,950) and punish them with between six months to five years in prison. More than 120 people have been arrested, with several being detained and charged for disobeying the curfew and lockdown since April 15.
Police in the capital region have been using batons and sticks to chase and beat people wandering outside of their homes in recent days—videos of which were distributed by local authorities via posts to their Facebook accounts.
The warrant for Sam Rainsy’s arrest followed an interview he gave to RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday, in which he said that in order to resolve the country’s coronavirus crisis, the government must eliminate systemic corruption.
“People should stop stealing and return the money to the central bank so that the state has money to help people,” he said.
“Secondly … we must seek international aid,” he added, noting that he had recently written to both the World Food Programme and the International Red Cross requesting assistance for people in the capital region facing a “famine” because of the lockdown.
Sam Rainsy noted that many of the residents in locked down parts of Phnom Penh and the outlying region had come to the area from other parts of Cambodia in search of work and no longer have an income while their expenses have mounted.
“We must allow anyone who wants to return to their hometowns—they must be allowed to return because it is easier for them to live there—they have trees, vegetables, fish to eat and they won’t starve,” he said.
“But if they live in the cities, they have only brick walls. How can they find anything [to eat]?”
Sam Rainsy called for the government to administer rapid tests for COVID-19 and said those people from the provinces who are found to be negative should be allowed to leave the city so that they “don’t starve.”
“We don’t need to detain people [for breaking lockdown rules to find food and supplies],” he said.
“I think the authorities are afraid and Hun Sen is afraid because if they let the situation continue, people will stop listening [to the government], they will [disobey the lockdown], they won’t die at home and let [authorities] detain them. They will all leave to do their businesses as usual.”
Sam Rainsy said it wasn’t impossible to think that the government would extend the lockdown for weeks and even months, and he called on people in the red zones to disregard the orders if they are given.
“If only a few leave, they use batons to attack, but if everyone leaves, they won’t know who to attack. If people leave [the lockdown] at the same time, the authorities won’t be able to stop it and they are afraid.”
Sam Rainsy said that Cambodian are “more afraid of dying of starvation than COVID-19,” and suggested that a wide-ranging lockdown was inappropriate for a region like Phnom Penh.
“Even if I didn’t say anything, I don’t think the people have the patience to stay home until they starve, so before they die, they will disobey, and Hun Sen’s government won’t be able to do anything,” he said.
“I think Hun Sen’s government will end if it continues to lock down major cities beyond another week.”
Ministry of Justice spokesman Kim Santepheap told a press conference Wednesday that Sam Rainsy’s appeal is “against the law.”
“I appeal to all people to participate with the government’s measures and not listen to the criminal who is addicted to making criminal comments,” he said.
“Please remain calm and adhere to authorities’ measures for your own wellbeing to end the lockdown in a short period of time, after which you can return to your normal lives.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.