Entering 2020, analysts widely agreed that the stabilisation of Cambodia’s one-party rule was high on the list of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly played into his hands. Cambodia’s successful public health response and its extremely low case numbers have strengthened the government’s claim to leadership. COVID-19 provided a convenient justification to police dissenting voices and increase restrictions on fundamental freedoms. It also undermined the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) strategy for its reinstatement.
The government drew criticism for its initially lax approach to the impending public health crisis, but by March its response underwent a sharp turnaround. The new measures included border closures, quarantine requirements, lockdowns and an information campaign to promote hygiene awareness and behavioural change. As of 2 January, Cambodia has recorded only 379 COVID-19 cases and no deaths.