COVID-19 in Cambodia: A Double-edged Sword and its Triple Effects on Democracy

Mak Sithirith

COVID-19 in Cambodia: A Double-edged Sword and its Triple Effects on Democracy

In late 2019, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) broke out in Wuhan, China. The first case of COVID-19 was found in Sihanoukville in Cambodia on 27 January 2020, through a 60-year-old Chinese national who arrived from Wuhan, China on in 23 January, 2020 with his three other family members. Between January and April 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases rose from one case in Sihanouville to 122 cases across Cambodia, ranking Cambodia no.9 among 12 countries in Southeast Asia. None of the COVID-19 patients were reported dead in Cambodia. By May 18, 2020, all COVID-19 patients in Cambodia have fully recovered.

Cambodia has taken action to prevent the wider spread of COVID-19; through stopping foreigners traveling to Cambodia; by cancelling visa free entry and the issuance of all e-visas and visas-on-arrival for all foreigners; through closing all public and private schools; initiating tele-working for all ministries, cancelling the Khmer New Year celebrations between 13–16 April, and placing a ban on all travel between provinces on the same dates. One of Cambodia’s COVID-19 responses has been the issuance of a state of emergency law within a month. To date, it is the only country in Southeast Asia that has considered a state of emergency as part of its response to COVID-19. Concerns were raised that this may lead to the further erosion of human rights protections. Subsequently, Cambodia has used the COVID-19 pandemic to arrest opposition supporters and critics of the government. Some 30 people, including 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were charged for spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the global outbreak of the pandemic. Some 14 people remain in pre-trial detention. One journalist was arrested following the quoting of a speech by the Prime Minister Hun Sen. Authorities released two on bail, one of whom was hospitalized. Their charges remain pending (Human Right Watch 2020).

Cambodia was blamed for taking risks with the life of people, in particular by allowing the Westerdam Cruise Ship emergency docking in Sihanoukville Port in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, while another five counties denied it entry for fear of spreading COVID-19. In regards to this, the COVID-19 outbreak and the Westerdam incident were politicised to divert attention away from the European Union (EU)’s decision to partially withdraw Cambodia’s preferential access to its market. Consequently, Cambodia’s relationship with Malaysia turned sour over the disagreements on the results of the COVID-19 tests of an 83-year-old American woman, who left the Westerdan and flew through Malaysia. Subsequently, the Malaysia’s Minister of Health resigned following this event. In return, Cambodia refused a Malaysian flight, carried 150 Cambodian workers from Malaysia to Cambodia on 7 April 2020 for fears of COVID-19 (Sopagna 2020), after 25 Cambodians tested positive, among 79 Cambodians who attended a religious ceremony in Malaysia (The Cambodia Daily 2020).

Another risk was a special visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen to China in the middle of the outbreak, while many countries were shutting down travel to and from China, and warning their nationals to leave the country. Cambodia took the decision to not evacuate its citizens and students. At the same time, Cambodia also allowed flights from China to Cambodia, and so, approximately 3,000 travellers from Wuhan flew to Cambodia since the epidemic was announced in January. China in return promised to take good care of Cambodian citizens in China, including Cambodian students studying in the country (Shannon 2020). Unlike China, Vietnam, on the 15 March, locked down its borders without informing Cambodia. Cambodia’s Prime Minister was not happy with this and said, “They protect their people, so we need to protect ours because coronavirus also broke out in Vietnam” (Khmer Times 2020a).

Cambodia has been hit by COVID-19 as other countries have, on top of the effects of partial removal of Everything but Arm (EBA)1 by EU and the retreat of Chinese gambling and a decline in tourism in late December 2019. The partial withdrawal of EBA may affect US$1.1 billion worth of exports to the EU and 75,000 workers in 589 garment factories (ASEAN Briefing 2018). The outbreak of COVID-19 (Khmer Time 2020b) has caused 130 factories to suspend their operations due to running out of raw materials (Khmer Time 2020c); 60% of factories were severely affected by cancelled orders from buyers due to the COVID-19 pandemic; and 500,000 workers out of 750,000 workers would lose their jobs (Khmer Time 2020b). In the tourist sector; 2,698 hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and travel agencies were closed down across the country; 630,000 workers have been affected (Khmer Times 2020d); and tourism revenues would decline by 1.4-3.5% of GDP—a loss between US$ 345.7 – 856.5 million (ASEAN Toda 2020). In the gambling industry, the closure of online gambling in early January and 120 Casinos in early April 2020, would lay off at least 100,000 workers (Silverstein 2020). In addition, the return of about 50,000 workers from Thailand before the Khmer New Year would make even more people jobless. These account for a “triple whammy effect” on Cambodia. One estimate has predicted that an annual economic growth rate of 7% will drop to -1.5% in GDP (Cambodia Construction Association 2020)—a loss between US$ 283 – 711 million (ASEAN Today 2020). If the outbreak lasts more than six months, it will result in US$ 1 billion in GDP losses (ASEAN Economist 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Cambodia like a double-edged sword. It has contributed to triple losses in the country and to its peoples. As it is, the longer it stays, the greater the impact and suffering. It will then induce more poverty, and as a cause of this, poverty will put more people at risk from the pandemic.

Garment factory workers travelling from factories to homes


9 May, 2020




  • 1Everything, But Arm (EBA).

Mak Sithirith is an independent researcher and former Head of Environment Unit, Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI).



Mak Sithirith. 2020. “COVID-19 in Cambodia: A Double-edged Sword and its Triple Effects on Democracy” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.