The wives of two activists from Cambodia’s banned opposition party called on the Ministry of Interior’s Prison Department Tuesday to allow them to visit their husbands, who are in detention awaiting a trial on charges of treason amid tight prison policies to fight the coronavirus epidemic.
Keo Thai, chief of a local branch of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Kampong Chhnang province, and his colleague Thai Sokunthea were arrested during the last week of March and have since been charged with treason, causing social instability, and inciting the military to refuse to obey the orders of their commanders. The pair are being held in a single cell in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison.
Keo Thai’s wife, Sam Chenda, told RFA’s Khmer Service she wants to visit her husband because she hasn’t seen him since his arrest more than two weeks ago and needs to speak with him about the charges he is facing.
“I want to meet with my husband, who I have heard nothing about since his arrest,” she said. “I want to check on his health, but they won’t let me in.”
Keo Thai’s attorney Sam Sokong recently told RFA that his client is at particular risk of poor health, as he has high blood pressure and must take medication every day.
Thai Sokunthea’s wife Am Lor told RFA that she also has not seen her husband since his arrest and is worried that he may be lacking basic necessities.
“I want him to be set free soon but, in the meantime, I want to figure out a way to see him,” she said.
The families of the two men say they are innocent of the charges against them and that they were arrested without warrants, while rights groups say their cases are politically motivated, noting that the two activists had been previously targeted by the government.
On Tuesday, Department of Prisons spokesperson Nouth Savna told RFA that Cambodia’s prisons are implementing measures—including a temporary ban on visits—to stop the spread of the coronavirus, as specified by the Ministry of Health. The ministry said that as of Tuesday, Cambodia has 122 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But Soeung Senkarona, a spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that prison authorities are obligated to facilitate visits for those in detention, noting that the Ministry of Health’s guidelines provide for family members to speak with one another as long as a glass partition is in place.
“The prison must coordinate visits—it is the right of prisoners,” he said.
“Family members want to see detainees and this can be done in such a way as to ensure the rights of detainees are honored.”
A Supreme Court ban of the CNRP in November 2017 for allegedly plotting to topple the government, along with a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on NGOs and independent media, paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Praying for political solution
On Tuesday, as Cambodia marked the first day of the April 14-16 Lunar New Year by attending local pagodas, many people told RFA that they prayed for politicians to stop accusing one another of treason and to engage in national reconciliation.
“I prayed … to turn the politicians towards promoting the national interest so that the country can continue to develop,” a villager from Kampong Speu province named Chhin Tevin said, calling for an end to “greed and nepotism.”
Another villager from Svay Rieng province named Yos Sophoan said she would like the CNRP and CPP to return to the negotiating table, adding that King Norodom Sihamoni should intervene.
“The king should try to create a compromise between the two parties that would result in their working together to develop the country and end their bickering over personal issues,” she said.
Analyst Kim Sok told RFA that Cambodians are fed up with the country’s political crisis and urged the ruling party to listen to the people.
“People understand that the longer there is a political crisis, the more it will ruin the country,” he said.
Meanwhile, other Cambodians spent their new year at the factory after they were told by authorities that holiday celebrations had been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak and they were required to go to work.
The mood at factories was somber, workers told RFA, citing frustrations over not receiving any bonus incentives for work during the new year and being prevented from enjoying the tradition of visiting their home villages for the holiday due to a nationwide travel ban aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.
A worker at a garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district named Sam Sok Srey Mom said most of her fellow employees showed up on Tuesday, but went straight home at the end of the day, instead of gathering to feast and celebrate like most years.
“We won’t get any benefits because it is a normal workday and isn’t considered a national holiday, according to the prime minister,” she said.
“Every year, during the new year holidays, we would gather for a party, but now [Cambodia has] the virus and we can’t. I can’t join others because we are all afraid of [contracting the virus from] one another.”
Risk of spread
Moeun Tola, a labor expert and executive director for worker rights group CENTRAL, told RFA that forcing workers to go to their factories during an outbreak increases the risk that they will spread the virus to one another.
“I’m not sure whether, inside each factory, workers are provided with enough face masks and hand sanitizer,” he said.
“I’m concerned about how workers travel back and forth to their workplace … It was so tight on each truck—they placed 20-30 workers, or in some cases between 50 and 70 workers, standing close to each other. If anyone among them got the virus, they could easily spread it to others.”
Heng Sour, secretary of state for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, told government affiliated media outlet Fresh News on Monday that more than 95 percent of the country’s factories were “operating as usual” and that even some factories that had been shuttered last week due to supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus had since reopened.