Members of the Cambodian military prepare beds for Covid-19 patients at a wedding party hall that is being turned into a field hospital in Phnom Penh on April 11. (Photo: AFP)
Cambodian leader Hun Sen has declared he accepts being labeled “a dictator” as he laid down a series of harsh measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic following an outbreak of the UK variant that has caused the number of confirmed cases to spiral.
“I accept being called a dictator, but I will also be admired for protecting my people's lives,” the prime minister said in a televised address to the nation on April 10 when he announced: “People who break Covid-19 measures must be sentenced.”
Hun Sen has ruled with absolute authority since elections in 2018 when his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won every seat contested after the main opposition party was dissolved by the courts.
His iron grip has been sharply criticized by human rights groups and Western countries but his government was widely applauded for its handling of the pandemic.
Cambodia has already passed a Covid-19 prevention bill that imposes jail terms of up to 20 years for people who breach quarantine rules. An 8pm to 5am curfew has been imposed and the borders of all 24 provinces are now closed.
The sale of alcohol has been banned and people caught not wearing a mask will be fined $250, much more than the average monthly salary. Parts of capital Phnom Penh, provincial cities and entire villages have been totally locked down.
Vaccinations have been made mandatory for all state officials, the armed forces and the judiciary, and anyone who refuses to have one will be fired. Celebrations marking this week’s Khmer New Year have been scrapped.
That also prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia to issue “a stark warning” as the country grapples with the worst outbreak to date, telling Cambodians to stay home for Khmer New Year “to protect your family, community and country”.
"We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are struggling to control the virus,” said Dr. Li Ailan, WHO representative to Cambodia.
“New cases occur every day and we are racing against the virus. Unless we can stop the outbreak, Cambodia's health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed, which would have disastrous consequences."
Restaurants and bars that sell food have also shuttered but are allowed to provide some takeaway and home delivery services. Restaurants were the last place people could gather amid strict social distancing rules after the outbreak of the so-called February 20 Community Event.
That “event” was traced to two Chinese woman who breached quarantine and went out partying in Phnom Penh bars and nightclubs, resulting in an outbreak of the more virulent UK variant.
Since then numbers have soared to 4,238 and at least 29 deaths, which compares with just 484 cases and no deaths registered in the first year of the pandemic. More than 1,100 cases have been confirmed in the last three days, prompting Hun Sen’s address.
Authorities are also turning conference centers into hospital wards amid fears over Cambodia’s fragile health system and its ability to cope.
The health ministry says about one million Cambodians have been vaccinated against the disease, out of a population of 16 million, since its rollout began on Feb. 10 and the government intends to inoculate 10 million of its citizens.