Covid-19 and Cambodia Politics

Independence Day: November 9, 1953 (by France)

Head of state: King Norodom Sihamoni

Head of government: Prime Minister Hun Sen

Political system: One-party state with a monarchy

Democracy Status Index (BTI): Rank 110 (of 137) (2020)

Corruption Index (CPI): Rank 161 (of 180) (2018)

Covid-19 and Cambodia’s politics: State emergency without head of state announced

The royal government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the Covid-19 crisis in a way that is not unusual for autocratic states: By passing a new state emergency law in April, the regime has given itself additional powers, which are mainly in restrictions on movement and freedom of assembly lie. The state of emergency can be declared by decree without parliamentary approval and extended as often as desired over the three months provided. The approval of the state emergency law, which can de facto result in a fundamental self-disempowerment, was given in both chambers of parliament, as is usual for one-party regimes, without a dissenting vote or abstention.

In principle, a law on the state of emergency did not seem to have really been necessary, since Hun Sen also disregards other laws or even the constitution if it seems opportune to him. Human Rights Watch has harshly criticized the new law, however, because it would allow Prime Minister Hun Sen to override mechanisms that protect fundamental human rights. On May 13th, 65 non-governmental organizations followed suit in a joint statement; In it they demand changes to the law, which otherwise fundamental freedoms could be restricted without limit. Indeed, the regime has been systematically taking action against political opponents and critical expressions of opinion in general since March (see below).

Nevertheless, neither this case nor the Covid 19 crisis should have little political impact on Hun Sen, even if he did not go through the pandemic flawlessly. He appears to be largely powerless in the face of the economic turmoil, which is affecting the country much harder than the virus itself. In this respect, it will hardly be possible that he will be held responsible for it. In contrast, it will be difficult, developed by the propaganda narrative, Hun Sen is responsible for all the positive developments in Cambodia since 1979, maintain. According to, because nobody can claim that they are responsible for everything in the good and for nothing in the bad. In terms of foreign policy, Hun Sen can still be sure of massive support from the People’s Republic of China.

King Norodom Sihamoni also drew attention to himself at the beginning of the crisis. On April 1, he said goodbye to Beijing, the reason given was (routine) medical examinations. The stay was initially only supposed to last three weeks, but was then extended to six weeks. As a result, Sihamoni not only missed the country’s most important holiday, the Cambodian New Year celebrations in mid-April, but also the signing of the State Emergency Act. In his absence, this had to be countersigned by Say Chhum, Deputy President of the Senate. In any case, the king escaped the embarrassment of associating his name with a questionable law. Still, his frequent and prolonged absences may not only be too constitutional complications, but fundamentally once again raise the question of the future of the monarchy in Cambodia. (As of November 30, 2020)

Another wave of arrests in the wake of the Corona crisis

In order to nip in the bud any protest arising out of economic dissatisfaction, several opposition activists, artists and human rights activists, including an ordained monk, have been taken into custody since July. On September 22nd, the renowned NGO Licadho counted a total of 19 people who had been put behind bars without a judicial arrest warrant or charge. The most prominent case so far is Rong Chhun, long-time chairman of the teachers’ union and in this capacity, above all, independent and critical of the government. But that was only the overture to a much larger attack on everything that the regime did not consider opportune enough: since November130 supporters of the opposition have to answer in two separate negotiations for “high treason” in court, without a timely reason. It seems that high treason is being committed by anyone who even gives the impression that they do not want to submit to Hun Sen.

The government’s crosshairs are also the independent organizations Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature, from which several activists have been robbed of their freedom. The regime’s allegations are mostly constructed through the vague formulations of Sections 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Penal Code (inciting a crime and creating chaos in society). Objectively speaking, the fact that this is not the case, since freedom of expression and political pluralism are guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution, proves once again the highly repressive nature of the Cambodian government.

The recent wave of arrests was also noticed internationally and publicly criticized, albeit in the elegant and reserved language of diplomacy. Flag was mainly shown by the United Nations, the USA, Australia and the European Union. The Federal Republic of Germany, on the other hand, refrained from public criticism of the Cambodian government. As a result, no cutbacks will be made in bilateral development cooperation: in mid-September it was announced that a program to promote economic development would be continued.

Covid-19 and Cambodia Politics

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