When COVID-19 was recognised as a global pandemic in 2020, we heard from many civil society actors in Cambodia who held strong fears about its potentially critical impact. They anticipated that the spread of the pandemic, in combination with people’s fear and the government’s tightened regulation, would significantly restrict the space for their campaigns and reduce their autonomy. Approximately a year since then, fear has turned into reality. If there has been any difference from what was anticipated, it is that the impact is worse than predicted.
An immediate impact of COVID-19 has been the restriction on human mobility. Since March 2020, the government has adopted various regulations in order to control the social transmission of the virus by minimising human interaction, including the complete lockdown of Phnom Penh imposed between April and May 2021. While the impact of such restricted mobility and gathering has a negative influence on all aspects of social activities, it has had a particularly critical impact on the civil society sector whose activities were not considered essential for managing people’s livelihoods.
According to a human rights organisation in Phnom Penh, almost all existing projects for human rights advocacy have stopped operating. As all inter-provincial travel requires the approval of local authorities, practitioners are no longer able to conduct meetings with local staff members; capacity building programmes, outreach programmes, and legal consultation processes in the communities have had stop. Some legal aid procedures at the court have also become stuck.