Prime Minister Hun Sen compared the recent joyous celebrations of Khmer New Year – the first following a two-year Covid-19 hiatus – to January 7, 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was toppled from power, as well as the day when Cambodia achieved comprehensive peace in 1998 with the official end of the civil war.
Speaking at the launch of the Project for Flood Prevention and Drainage Improvement in Phnom Penh Phase IV on April 20, Hun Sen said he understood the public’s reaction in light of the fact that people were finally enjoying their holiday en masse again following two years of cancellation due to the pandemic.
“It is like our people have escaped from ‘two years of oppression by Covid-19’. I announced in February that I would permit the holiday celebrations this year,” he said, adding that more than five million people had travelled throughout the country over the April 14-16 holiday.
“Now, you can understand why Hun Sen did what he did these past two years. We protected your health at the time and now we’ve brought happiness again. The government, especially myself, had to introduce many measures. I sometimes sent out my special audio messages as late as 11pm at night to beg for understanding from our compatriots.
“Now, our people understand that their lives have been protected and the epidemic has been controlled. And now you are having more joy than ever before. I also share that same joy with you. I went swimming for three days in Preah Sihanouk,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said that it will take about 10 more days before the government can conclude whether the larger gatherings during the New Year holiday had caused large-scale transmission of Covid-19, but his guess was that there would not be any major outbreaks.
“I judge that our herd immunity is very good at the moment. Only one person out of 1,000 who came to this event tested positive for the coronavirus. If we didn’t have herd immunity, then it would not just be the one person who would have been found positive because most of the 1,000 people tested had travelled during the New Year,” he said.
Hun Sen explained that there are six factors that enabled Cambodia to enjoy the holiday last week: Peace, improved infrastructure that enables more travel, increasing incomes, more resort destinations, and herd immunity against Covid-19 due to the government’s efforts and public participation.
“That’s why I always say that we must keep the peace at all costs,” he said. “Don’t wait until peace is gone and then start shouting for it.”
He also praised local authorities and the armed forces for upholding security and maintaining public order during the holiday.
He said it was due to the government’s decentralisation policy in which more power is delegated locally, such as at the district or commune levels .
“This method of delegating power from the national to the sub-national levels makes local authorities take full responsibility for what happens under their watch. This is the result of an increase in sub-national democracy through decentralisation and now it’s producing results,” he said.
If the number of daily transmission – especially of the Omicron variant – remains low after the holiday and herd immunity is maintained, Hun Sen said he will consider lifting the mask-wearing mandate for some additional provinces.
Masks have already been made optional for Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng provinces.
“I have a plan to reduce costs to the public by lifting the mask-wearing mandate. Outside of those four provinces, optional mask-wearing will be expanded. The mandate can be kept at the district level in some provinces. For some places, mask-wearing rules can be lifted when outside of buildings, while still being necessary for those inside buildings. We will review this step by step,” he said.
Hun Manet – Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army – said on April 19 that the success in controlling Covid-19 did not just “fall from the sky”, but was due to the efforts by the government’s leadership and officials along with medical staff, nurses, the armed forces and the general public.
Without those efforts, he said, Cambodia would never have achieved the globally recognised high ranking it enjoys for the effectiveness of its Covid-19 response and recovery initiatives.