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King Departs for China Amid Coronavirus Pandemic and the Potential State of Emergency

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni reviews the honor guards as he arrives together with his mother Queen Monineath for a funeral ceremony of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi at a Buddhist pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The King’s departure comes as Cambodia has seen a significant increase in coronavirus cases, leading to significant economic distress in the country.

King Norodom Sihamoni announced on Tuesday he will depart for China for a health checkup on April 1, the departure coming as Cambodia deals with the coronavirus pandemic and a new “state of emergency” draft law would need to be promulgated soon.

A statement from the Royal Palace said that the King and Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk would depart on Wednesday for Beijing for a health checkup, assigning as per law Senate President Say Chhum as head of state in the King’s absence.

“I would like to say that Samdech Vibol Sena Pheakdey Say Chhum, the President of Senate, will assist me the title of the acting Head of State,” read the statement.

The King’s departure comes as Cambodia has seen a significant increase in coronavirus cases, leading to significant economic distress in the country. Additionally, the government is attempting to expedite a “state of emergency” law, which has been approved by the Council of Ministers on Tuesday, but not yet made public.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, former secretary for the Crown, said the King had planned to visit China in February for a medical checkup but had to delay the trip because of the coronavirus crisis there. He said the King would likely have to follow guidelines for incoming travelers, adding that he was unaware when the King would return.

“Now foreigners in China have to be isolated for 15 days, so maybe [China] would make that plan for the [King] too, so his medical checkup will not be immediate,” Prince Thomico said. “So maybe it will take at least three to four weeks.”

The King has in the past departed the country before promulgating controversial legislation, leaving it to Senate President Say Chhum to stamp these laws. This includes the government’s controversial amendments to the Constitution in 2018, including introduction of a lèse-majesté criminal code article or amendments to the Law on Political Parties that lead to the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017.

Senate spokesperson Mam Bunneang said he was unsure of the new law required the King to personally enforce a state of emergency or if the acting head of state, in this case Say Chhum, could do the same.

“However, all proposals for putting the nation in a state of emergency must be requested by the King and approved by the Prime Minister or the President of the National Assembly or the President of the Senate. This is what the Constitution says,” Mam Bunneang said.

The draft of the law had not been made public, with Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin calling the draft legislation “confidential.”

Meas Nee, a sociologist and political analyst, said that the draft law should be made transparent and policy-oriented to protect people's interests, such as ensuring food availability in a crisis.

“And all of these have to come out in a principled, clear policy,” Meas Nee said.

Hun Sen has said he doesn’t feel the need for a state of emergency but has drafted the law in case the coronavirus situation worsens.