The acting president of Cambodia’s opposition party, Sam Rainsy, on Thursday slammed the country’s government for soliciting donations to buy coronavirus vaccines as “populist” and “corrupt,” prompting the ruling party to label his comments a form of “incitement.”
In a statement posted to his Facebook account, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting chief Sam Rainsy suggested Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is “lagging behind” other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members in acquiring a sufficient number of vaccines.
He noted that several other countries have been able to arrange purchases of vaccines that they will provide to their citizens free of charge, while Hun Sen has had to request financial assistance from the public.
Earlier on Thursday, Hun Sen announced that his government had received more than U.S. $56 million from “philanthropists” to prepare for the purchase of 1 million doses of vaccine that his government will provide to around 500,000 people “free of charge.” Coronavirus vaccines require two separate injections.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan responded to Sam Rainsy’s comments Thursday by saying the acting opposition leader, who has lived in self-imposed exile in France since late 2015, was using the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a “pretext to provoke the people” of Cambodia through “incitement.”
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Cambodia Communicable Disease Control Department is in the process of deciding which vaccine the country should purchase, adding that Cambodia is “not in a hurry” to buy one and is waiting to see what the World Health Organization (WHO) will recommend.
“We have to wait and see which company’s vaccine the WHO approves so that the Cambodian people are not part of an experiment—that is the last thing we want,” he said.
The WHO last week listed the Comirnaty COVID-19 mRNA vaccine for emergency use, making the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the first to receive emergency validation since the pandemic began a year ago. There are currently more than 50 vaccine candidates in trials.
Pich Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, urged the government to act quickly to obtain the Comirnaty vaccine, following its recognition by the WHO.
“These vaccines are in high demand around the world, so the government should not delay,” he told RFA.
“Even though Cambodia is at low risk, [the government] must be ready to place vaccine orders and pre-order [a stockpile] in case we have an epidemic so that we can give it to the people—particularly those who are vulnerable, work in the health sector, or work directly on disease prevention.”
Secretary-General of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students Kien Ponlok called Hun Sen’s approach to ordering vaccines “vague” and urged the government to provide more transparency about the process, including the costs associated with acquiring them.
“I want to see the government use the money from local and foreign philanthropists transparently—to show to all Cambodians that it is ordering vaccines so that they are aware of it,” he said.
Ahead of Hun Sen’s announcement, Sam Rainsy published a statement to his Facebook page deriding Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations from “tycoons and the business elite,” as well as King Norodom Sihamoni, to pay for vaccinations.
“Only the credulous believe” that private donations from Cambodia’s elite will be enough to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for more than a tiny percentage of the population, he said at the time.
“In reality it will be the hard-earned tax money of the Cambodian people that funds the solution, but the provision of COVID-19 vaccines will be done in such a way as to present them as a gift of Hun Sen, the CPP, and its meshed network of wealthy benefactors,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Sam Rainsy said that Hun Sen had been obliged to announce plans to “repay the generous donors who have been cheated in this affair, including the puppet king,” after the opposition called out his actions. The Facebook post earned him a charge under the country’s Lèse-majesté law for insulting the monarch, who he said was helping to cover up shortcomings in Hun Sen’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Two months later, the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Workers in Thailand
Also, on Thursday, a group of civil society officials called on the Cambodian and Thai governments to care for more than 100 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand infected with COVID-19.
Dy Thehoya, program officer at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, told RFA that the workers are facing a food shortage, as they are unable to earn money while they are sick. He urged the governments to monitor their health.
“The Cambodian and Thai governments should guarantee them effective treatment and ensure that they are reinstated [at their jobs] after they recover,” he said.
Yin Mengly, a coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Cambodia’s Battambang province, said that although Thai authorities are responsible for COVID-19 cases in Thailand, the Cambodian government should provide support to the workers so that they can recover without having to address other concerns.
RFA was unable to contact officials at Cambodia’s embassy in Bangkok or Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong for comment Thursday.
However, government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the workers should contact Cambodian Embassy officials in Thailand if they require urgent assistance. He called on all Cambodian migrant workers to “be patient” and stay in Thailand for now.
“[People should stay in Thailand] to get treatment, don’t come to Cambodia because you will be quarantined,” he said.
Migrant workers returning
The Thai Ministry of Health recently announced that 108 Cambodian workers had become infected with COVID-19 while working in Thailand since Dec. 19. Thailand’s Department of Disease Control has identified 158 infected Cambodian migrant workers to date.
Around 6,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned home from abroad since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in December 2019.
Twenty Cambodian workers who traveled home from Thailand have been found to be infected with COVID-19, including two announced by Cambodia’s Ministry of Health on Thursday.
Cambodia has recorded 385 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the outbreak, of which 362 have recovered and 23 are being treated.