On April 10, Cambodia’s parliament passed a sweeping new state of emergency law granting the government the power to impose its will to protect “national security and social order”—using the army if necessary—in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Days earlier, a leaked draft of the law had alarmed human rights groups, which feared the legislation would embolden Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to take an even more authoritarian line. Since shutting down the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017, Hun Sen’s government has cracked down on opposition activists and online dissenters.
Days before the law was passed, police arrested Sovann Rithy, the publisher of the social media news platform TVFB. His crime? Posting a quote from Hun Sen’s speech earlier that day. The prime minister had advised motorbike taxi drivers who go bankrupt amid coronavirus containment measures to “sell your motorbikes for spending money.” “The government does not have the ability to help,” he said —something that National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun later claimed was a joke. On April 9, a judge charged Rithy with incitement.