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Cambodia struggles with porous border as pandemic takes hold

As Covid-19 cases surge in Southeast Asia, illegal border crossings are being blamed for the spread

Cambodia struggles with porous border as pandemic takes hold

A woman carries food past a barricade set up in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh due to lockdown restrictions introduced to try to halt a surge in Covid-19 cases. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Cambodia’s notoriously porous border has a long history of smuggling, ranging from human trafficking and drugs to petrol and ancient Buddhist artifacts, by crime bosses who took a strategic view of the country and its access to neighbors and the coast.

Bordering Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia's 3,700-kilometer border is now under intense scrutiny amid fears the latest Covid-19 outbreak could spread even further as the region continues to confirm caseloads in record numbers.

“I used to work at a casino in Bavet and live in Vietnam and cross the border twice a day on my motorbike,” said a 25-year-old former casino worker. “We knew all the back ways and the police were tolerant, but that’s all changed.”

Bavet is a border town famous for its casinos and freewheeling trade but business has ground to a halt with Phnom Penh and some provincial cities in lockdown and travel restrictions imposed on much of the country.

Earlier this week a joint police force arrested 11 Chinese suspects after a search of their hotel found 112 Vietnamese and other Chinese men and women who had just crossed the border from Vietnam illegally and were hoping to find work in a Bavet casino.

Another 13 Chinese nationals were detained, including four people driving cross-country in a Rolls-Royce, for breaking quarantine and breaching travel restrictions.

I can only say that during this period of Covid lockdowns and tightened restrictions we are still receiving information about people possibly crossing the border

It’s a sensitive issue given the latest outbreak, with the April 29 record high of 880 confirmed cases taking Cambodia’s tally to 12,641 with 91 deaths. Almost all have been recorded since Feb. 20 when two Chinese women breached quarantine and went out partying.

"I can only say that during this period of Covid lockdowns and tightened restrictions we are still receiving information about people possibly crossing the border,” Por Pheak, secretary-general of the interior ministry, told the Phnom Penh Post.

Record coronavirus numbers have also been reported in Laos, mostly in Vientiane, which confirmed 68 cases on April 29 to take its tally to 672. Thailand has confirmed 61,699 cases with daily numbers often exceeding 2,000.

The Thai cabinet has approved sweeping new powers for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha aimed at curbing the pandemic, but human rights activists say they fear those powers could be used as a political tool to suppress dissent.

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Prayut has also been roundly criticized for doing too little too late since his country’s latest outbreak was first detected in Bangkok’s nightclub district. The enforced wearing of masks and the closure of bars and entertainments venues have had little impact.

Casinos in the Cambodian town of Poipet on the Thai border have also been closed as a result.

Provincial administration director Chhoeun Kraiyong said gamblers and guests at Poipet’s casinos were among those who tested positive. Thailand has traced its latest confirmed cases to Cambodia, where many patients are suffering from the UK variant.

“Seeing the outbreak, the provincial administration decided to suspend all casinos in Poipet town. We wouldn’t have closed them if it wasn’t related,” Chhoeun Kraiyong said.

Donaco International Ltd., operator of Star Vegas, confirmed the suspension of operations in a filing to the Australian Stock Exchange.

“Donaco’s Star Vegas has temporarily closed its operations until further notice from the local government,” the company said in a statement.

“The continued safety of Donaco’s staff and visitors remains paramount and the company will monitor developments and advise the market once there is a further update.”

Hun Manet, deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, reminded the Regional Military Commands they would be prosecuted by the full force of the law if they failed in their duty.

The warning came after a mission letter was fraudulently used to transport a group of Chinese nationals from a lockdown in the capital despite a strict prohibition on inter-provincial travel.

"I urge all regional brigade commanders to impose strict discipline for all officers, deputies and soldiers in the units under their command to fully implement all the government's regulations, especially those related to the lockdown,” Hun Manet said in a statement.

Cambodia has outperformed its neighbors in the vaccination rollout with more than 1.2 million people inoculated

Former two-star military officer Su Pov and five officers were arrested by Svay Rieng provincial police near the Vietnamese border last week and charged with human trafficking after allegedly transporting 28 Chinese nationals from Phnom Penh to that province.

Su Pov is also accused of using military license plates on luxury cars to get around roadblocks, violating government lockdown orders and travel restrictions.

While securing borders has proved difficult, Cambodia has outperformed its neighbors in the vaccination rollout with more than 1.2 million people inoculated.

Authorities have also announced a plan to vaccinate a further 450,000 people with their first dose by May 15. A second jab was expected to be completed by the end of May.

“We have prepared vaccination sites in the zones,” deputy commander and joint chief of staff Ith Sarath said in a television broadcast.

“We are also preparing a list and timetable so that we know how many people will be vaccinated in each district. We have set up sites closest to their residences.”

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