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Gov’t Cancels New Year Holidays, Fears Spread of Virus Through the Provinces

FILE: Cambodians walk outside Sangkran Wat Phnom gate during Khmer New Year celebration at Wat Phnom on second day of Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 15, 2019.(Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)

The Cambodian government took the major step of cancelling this year’s Khmer New Year holiday to prevent people from travelling within the country and to stop mass gatherings during the annual celebration.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he had cancelled the Khmer New Year holiday as a precautionary measure because despite the low number of cases in the country there was still a “high risk” of the novel coronavirus spreading.

The prime minister said the four-day holiday starting Monday would be given to workers at a more suitable time; annual national holidays are assured to workers, especially in the garment sector.

Hun Sen added that it was safer to keep workers in factories as opposed to letting them travel to their hometowns for the holidays, admitting that this was the easiest way to prevent them from travelling.

“If [we] allow them to go freely, the situation after Khmer New Year will be at higher risk,” he said. “Now people in the countryside are afraid of people from the city bringing the disease, as people in the city worried about infection.”

The government has not issued any orders to prevent or restrict travel, instead it has over the last month closed schools, all big public gatherings, religious meetings, and even cancelled the Angkor Sangkranta new year celebrations in Siem Reap.

Hun Sen has refused to shut down factories, restaurants and markets, and while his government is in the process of passing a widely criticized “state of emergency” law, he has been non-committal about its use.

The Ministry of Labor immediately issued a circular formalizing the announcement, adding that five days of holiday will be given to workers as soon as the novel coronavirus situation improved in Cambodia.

As of Tuesday evening, Cambodia had confirmed 115 positive cases of the respiratory disease, however, for the first time it had recorded more recoveries than active cases. There are 58 people who have recovered from the disease, 57 who are receiving treatment and no recorded deaths.

Yang Sophorn, president of workers union Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said workers were already preparing to go back to their hometowns, and that she supported allowing them to go back home with their families.

“Let workers decide whether they want to work or go home,” she said.

She said the factory floor was not any safer for workers, adding that it was equally risky for workers to be in factories during the viral pandemic. “If they still work and there is a problem of infection, who is responsible for them,” she queried.

Hun Sen said on Tuesday that around 100 factories had asked for work suspensions, affecting at least 60,000 garment workers. Additionally, factories are reporting that buyers have cancelled or stopped accepting orders they had already placed, leaving thousands of Cambodians suspended or fired from their jobs.