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Prime Minister Hints at Declaring State of Emergency; Criticizes Price Gouging

FILE: Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered a speech to passengers after they disembarked from the MS Westerdam, owned by Holland America Line, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday he was considering the possibility of declaring a state of emergency, though he said it in the middle of an irate speech criticizing price gouging.

Speaking to volunteer doctors and healthcare professionals in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said the pharmacists still have time to decrease the price of face masks, adding they could lose their business license and that all masks would be confiscated from their shops.

“I am checking the possibility of using Article 22 of the Constitution to ask the King to place the country under state of emergency,” he said, immediately after making the threat to shutdown pharmacies.

“I don't want to use it, but [I will] if my call is not effective,” he said, labelling the mask sellers as “opportunists.”

Cambodia, he said, would need to enact a law first to implement the Article 22 of the Constitution, adding that he needs to know the scope of the state of emergency. Hun Sen did add that it would curtail “civil liberties.”

“When the nation faces danger, the King shall make a proclamation to the people putting the country in a state of emergency after agreement with the Prime Minister, the president of Assembly and the president of the Senate” reads Article 22 of the Constitution.

On Tuesday, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared a state of emergency starting March 26 as an effort to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak, with Hun Sen mentioning his Thai counterpart's decision in his speech.

Cambodia’s coronavirus tally has risen sharply to 96 positive cases in the last few weeks. As Cambodia has seen a significant increase in cases, both its neighbors – Vietnam and Thailand – have closed all land borders with the country.

While Cambodia has ordered the closure of schools, cinemas and other gatherings, it has yet to impose a lockdown across the country. Hun Sen called people to maintain social distancing, to refrain from handshakes and to cut essential travel.

However, the prime minister said there he was not going to order the shutdown of cafes, malls and garment factories. It was unclear how this fit in with his call for social distancing. Also, in Phnom Penh, funerals and weddings have continued unabated.

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the government did not need a state of emergency to crackdown on price gouging. But, looking around the region, to countries like Thailand and the Philippines, Robertson said it was likely Hun Sen would be tempted to assume “draconian emergency powers.”

“Imposing a state of emergency to control the price of facemasks would be like trying to kill a fly with a sledge hammer,” said the deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.