COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 in Cambodia: Leadership or Autocracy?

Written by admin

Marc PinolDoctoral researcher
and Assistant Teacher in Politics at the University of Bristol,

have an outstanding opportunity to show their leadership to overcome this
exceptional health, social, and economic crisis that is the COVID-19
pandemic. Leadership entails complex power dynamics between a (group of)
leaders whose task is to engage the civil society with governance structures
(Burns, 2012) while keeping a relative balance between the interests of
individuals and those of the collective.In Cambodia, COVID-19 will test the
skills of the government to manage Human Rights in times of uncertainty, and
also whether leadership prevails over autocracy or vice versa. Civil and
political rights are stipulated under the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (United Nation, 1966) and their universality and relativism
are broadly discussed in the academic literature, but what is clear is that
“when rights-abusive practices raise issues of great moral significance,
tradition and culture are slight defense” (Donnelly, 2007: 304). Put
differently, intolerance to abuse is universal.
Therefore, and amid this crisis, governments must still respect fundamental
civil and political rights to balance virtue among stakeholders. In any other
circumstance, leadership will cease and will give way to autocracy.A comparative
analysis between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Cambodia shows how
leadership and some fundamental rights are slipping away. Taiwan’s strategy
to discourage large gatherings, impose social distancing, and practice
targeted surveillance (Chiou, 2020) has proven to be relatively efficient.
So, while some individual rights have contracted, a collective benefit is
expected. Moreover, it is unlikely that Taiwan will maintain these
restrictions once the crisis is over. Citizens and institutions have also
played a key role in aggregating data to prevent the spread of the virus (Pu,
2020). This aspect contrasts sharply with that of Cambodia. Recently, the
Southeast Asian country drafted the Law on National Administration in the
State of Emergency that, among others, grants the government unlimited
surveillance of telecommunications and control of media and social media
(Human Rights Watch, 2020). While measures that restrict freedom of movement
or assembly might help to fight the pandemic, restrictions on the use of
social media or on the freedom of telecommunications are not likely to do so.
It is not the first time that Cambodia faces a similar situation in times of
crisis. In 2015, amidst the protests that followed the 2013 elections, the Law
on Association and NGOs
was passed to restrict the proliferation
of NGOs in the country to protect the public interest – a law that was passed
without consultation and seriously affected freedom of association, thus
taking agency away from the civil society ever since (Human Rights Watch,
2015). With the current health crisis, any new law that restricts the use of
telecommunications is likely to be perpetuated as well; all the more at the
expense of civil society and human rights.Ultimately, using the pandemic to
justify a state of emergency and allow the passage of laws that curtail civil
and political freedoms in the long-run is not leadership. How can it be
leadership when it favours the interests of one particular group? A new blow
to fundamental civil and political rights can have major consequences for the
Cambodian civil society, which has never been as healthy as it should have
since democratic structures were implemented in 1991 in the first
place.References:Chiou, C.
(2020). How Taiwan Battles the Coronavirus. . Available
.Donnelly, J. (2007). The Relative Universality of Human Rights. Human Rights
Quarterly, 29 (2), pp.281–306.Human Rights Watch. (2015). Cambodia:
Joint Letter on the Draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental
. . Available at:
.Human Rights Watch. (2020). Cambodia: Emergency Bill Recipe for
. . Available at:
.James Macgregor Burns and Hoopla Digital (2012). Leadership.  United States: No Publisher. Available at:
.Pu, V. (2020). The Coronavirus Outbreak: How Democratic Taiwan
Outperformed Authoritarian China
. . Available at:
.United Nations. (1966). OHCHR | International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. . Available at:

About the author