Microfinance in Times of COVID-19 and Loan Restructuring Policy in Brief

Phasy RES

The Center for Khmer Studies

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers raised concerns about high levels of household over-indebtedness, questioning the relationship between debt and household vulnerability. In 2017, a sector-sponsored survey (N= 802) was conducted with household borrowers in 12 provinces and Phnom Penh, and it suggests that 28% of micro-finance household borrowers were insolvent, and another 22% were at risk (MFC and Good Return 2017). Concerning over-indebtedness, many researchers have pointed to several problems: land loss (Green 2018; Green & Bylander forthcoming), distressed migration (Bylander 2014; Ovesen and Trankell 2014; Green and Estes 2018; LICADHO 2020), and declining household nutrition through a reduction in food consumption (Seng 2018). COVID-19 pandemic, which induced economic slowdown and unemployment, has dramatically exacerbated vulnerable households’ livelihoods, especially micro-finance borrowers, in the country. Given these challenges, the World Bank (2020: 3) claims that “the global epidemiological and economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19 poses the greatest threat to Cambodia’s development in its 30 years of modern history.” The Bank continues, “poverty could increase between 3 to 11 percentage points from a 50 per cent income loss that lasts for six months for households engaged in tourism, wholesale and retail trade, garment, construction, or manufacturing.” In this essay, we attempt to briefly describe how the loan restructuring policy was enforced by financial institutions (FIs) and examine the extent to which this policy has benefited the debt-distressed or economically vulnerable households, and how they cope with the effects of the pandemic.

In response to COVID-19 induced economic crisis, loan restructuring policy or known in Khmer as Kareapcham Inatean Loeung Vinh or, in short, Inatean Saloueng Vinh policy, emerged. This directly follows a request by the government for leniency on debt-stressed borrowers impacted by the COVID-19. In March 2020, the Prime Minister of Cambodia called on financial institutions to be lenient towards borrowers and not to confiscate collateral assets from the debt-distressed households. Following the Prime Minister’s request, on 27 March 2020, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) issued a circular requesting banks and microfinance institutions to carry out a loan restructuring policy to relieve the debt burden of their clients whose incomes were adversely affected by the COVID-19.

To address the debt-distressed issues, NBC recommended nine options for the banks and financial institutions: 1) Reductions in the principal amount or the amount to be paid at maturity; 2) Reductions of the interest rate to a rate lower than in the original loan agreement; 3) Extension of time for the loan principal or interest repayment or interest capitalisation; 4) Extension of maturity; 5) Addition of and/or change of joint borrower or guarantor (if any); 6) Change in loan type from an instalment loan to a bullet loan; 7) Waiver of or reduction of collateral requirement; 8) Reduction of contract condition; and, 9) Provision of a grace period, which could last for six months counting from the effective date of the new contract.

To date, according to Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA), there were USD 1.3 billion worth of total loans being restructured or around 16 per cent of total outstanding loans in 2020. As of December 2020, 271,117 borrowers (about 12 per cent of the total number of borrowing households) have benefited from some forms of loan restructuring. The CMA and Association of Banks in Cambodia then called on the NBC to extend the loan restructure policy into 2021, as the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis remains in addition to the flood crisis (White 2020). The NBC granted the request so that the loan restructuring policy will continue until mid- 2021 (Sok 2020).    

While the nine options and loan restructuring have been officially implemented, it is not clearly defined by NBC what should be involved or who should receive which option. As such, the banks and FIs have opted for their discretion in responses to the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, the implementation of the loan restructure policy varies from an institution to another. However, the financial institutions with which we spoke offered three key aspects of restructuring available for COVID-19 affected borrowers:

  1. Payment Holiday: Borrowers granted a payment holiday is not required to repay loans at all for a specified period. The interest payments associated with that period of time are added to the left-over principal amount, and a new repayment schedule will be issued at the end of the payment holiday.
  2. Period Extension: With a period extension, loan periods are extended so that the monthly payment is reduced to a level within the borrowers’ capacity to repay.
  3. Grace Period: Borrowers granted a grace period have the option to repay only interest payments for a specified period of time. This allows them to minimise monthly payments and not pay down the principal for the duration of the grace period.

Our data from interviewing borrowers (N=119) and FI representatives (N= 34) show that the popular option enforced was the “grace period.” We found that 16 were given a grace period, 6 were granted a payment holiday, and in one case, a FI allowed a borrower to repay flexibly. 11 borrowers approached the FIs but were verbally rejected because of ineligibility of the sector (6 borrowers) and the loan restructuring was generally unavailable in their areas (5 borrowers). Seven borrowers were offered a “grace period” but rejected the offer because they were concerned about the financial loss (khart) it would create. Meanwhile, thirty-one borrowers were not aware of the loan restructuring policy at all, and the rest either had the ability to repay or approached their FI for the fear of impacting their credit history and/or being ashamed. The unawareness of the existence of loan restructuring policy is consistent with a finding of a survey (N = 997) conducted in July 2020 with registered and non-registered medium, small, and micro-enterprises of tourism-related businesses in four zones in Cambodia. The survey found that 60 per cent of the respondents were not aware of the bank/MFI debt restructuring policy (The Asia Foundation 2020). 

Not only have FIs limited options for the COVID-19 impacted households, but they also decided not to publicise the loan restructuring policy. Since the loan restructuring policy is informed to clients on a case-by-case basis, many, predominantly, low-income household borrowers in the rural areas are not aware of the policy.

During our field visit, there is a growing sense of fear and confusion among debt-distressed households. These households do not know what kind of supports could be provided to them. A case study below illustrates this sense of fear.

Pu (uncle) Theurn and Ming (aunt) Mao started borrowing in 2014; their first loan was to buy a tractor to plough their 15 hectares of land. After a few years (he could not recall exactly when), his corn and cassava production failed due to drought, at which point the household began to struggle to repay their debts. After sustained losses, the couple decided to sell the tractor. However, they could not repay all the debt, and they decided to sell 10 hectares of their land to repay the loan. At the time of the interview, the middle-aged couple was chopping cassava roots, which were not fully ready to harvest but were harvested a few months early because the couple needed the money to repay the micro-finance debt. Our research team asked him (husband) about the key risks he perceived in agriculture, using the Khmer term phey, literally translated as “to be fearful of.” He responded jokingly, “The main phey (fear)is the due repayment date because I have to repay one after another.” After finishing the sentence, he laughed gently. This story reflects a reality for many borrowers who are struggling to repay—the feeling of phey (fear). To date, the couple is still struggling to make their monthly repayments.

(Chopping premature cassava root Phnom Preuk district, Battambang 2020.
Photo by Phasy RES

Overall, it is important to make all options of loan restructuring available to all COVID-19‑affected borrowers. As evidenced in this case study, debt-distressed households can resort to coping strategies, such as land sale, migration, food consumption reduction, repayment phobia, or fear of FI’s retaliation: collateral confiscation. All of which has (and will continue to have) exacerbated economic vulnerability. At last, the loan restructuring policy should remain even after COVID-19, and other forms of restructuring such as debt forgiveness or interest cancellation should be considered.

This is an excerpt from a study report to be released in June 2021. The full report can be found here on the website of The Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) or The Asia Foundation (TAF) in English and Khmer.

Bio

Phasy RES is a doctoral student in anthropology and sociology at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a research fellow at The Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) under The Asia Foundation’s Ponlok Chomnes Program, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Her PhD research looks at the relationship between microfinance expansion and land security by examining how access to microcredit shapes land access and control in Cambodia. At CKS, under Ponlok Chomes Program, she specifically examined the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on microfinance borrowers and loan restructuring processes. Apart from these, she has conducted research on a range of topics, including agricultural mechanisation and intensification, anti-malaria drug resistance, the subjectivities of financial literacy, and labour migration in the Sub-Mekong region. Her work has been published in Espace Politique, Malaria Journal, Development Policy Review, Development and Change, and Mekong Migration Network.

The views expressed in this article are solely mine

References

Bylander, Maryann. 2014. “Borrowing across Borders: Migration and Microcredit in Rural Cambodia.” Development and Change 45(2):284–307.

Green, W. Nathan. 2018. “From Rice Fields to Financial Assets: Valuing Land for Microfinance in Cambodia.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (44): 749– 762

Green, W. Nathan and Jennifer Estes. 2018. “Precarious Debt: Microfinance Subjects and Intergenerational Dependency in Cambodia.” Antipode 51(1):129–47

Green W. Nathan & Bylander. Forthcoming. The Coercive Power of Debt: Microfinance and Land Dispossession in Cambodia.

LICADHO. 2020. Driven out: One village’s experience with MFIs and Cross-border migration. LICADHO. Available at from https://www.licadho-cambodia.org/reports.php?perm=229.

MFC and Good Return. 2017.  Over-indebtedness Study Cambodia II: Final Report. Phnom Penh: Microfinance Center and Good Return (unpublished).

Ovesen, Jan and Ing-Britt Trankell. 2014. “Symbiosis of Microcredit and Private Moneylending in Cambodia.” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 15(2):178–96.

Seng, Kimty. 2018. “Revisiting Microcredit’s Poverty-Reducing Promise: Evidence from Cambodia: Microcredit’s Poverty-Reducing Promise.” Journal of International Development 30(4):615–42.

Sok, Chan. November 2020. “Banks and FI loan restructuring extended to until mid-2021.” Khmer Times.  https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50785076/banks-and-fi-loan-restructuring-extended-until-mid-2021/

The Asia Foundation. 2020. Enduring the pandemic: rapid survey in the impact of COVID-19 on MSMES in the tourism sector and households in Cambodia. The Asia Foundation. Available at: https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Cambodia_Enduring-the-Pandemic_RAPID-SURVEY-ON-THE-IMPACT-OF-COVID-19-ON-MSMES-IN-THE-TOURISM-SECTOR-AND-HOUSEHOLDS-IN-CAMBODIA_EN.pdf.

White, Harrison. 2020. MFIs call on NBC to extend loan restructuring into next year. Khmer Times.  Available at: https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50784701/mfis-call-on-nbc-to-extend-loan-restructuring-into-next-year/.

World Bank. 2020. Cambodia Economic Update: Cambodia in the Time of COVID-19- Special Focus: Teacher Accountability and Student Learning Outcomes. Available at: http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/165091590723843418/pdf/Cambodia-Economic-Update-Cambodia-in-the-Time-of-COVID-19-Special-Focus-Teacher-Accountability-and-Student-Learning-Outcomes.pdf

Property Development in Malaysia amid COVID-19 Pandemic: A Matter of Capital Growth or Housing Affordability?

Keng-Khoon Ng

UCSI University Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

Many governments and state agencies in Southeast Asia are shifting towards the operation of ‘property state’ (Haila, 2015) or ‘cities for profits’ (Shatkin, 2017) or ‘neoliberal policies’ (Chen & Shin, 2019). In Malaysia, retirement and second-home properties have been promoted by the government to lure foreigners to buy relatively cheap, free-hold properties in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Melaka and Johor Bahru. However, such development tendency has been adding pressure to the provision of affordable housing because developers are keener to develop international property projects than those less-profitable products of local housing. Since 18 March 2020, Malaysia has imposed a series of entry and movement restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These restrictions brought uncertainty and new challenges to the operation of international property market. This blog discusses the property-related policy responses taken by the Malaysian governments, while reflecting on a prevailing concern over housing affordability.

The proliferation of international property development

The proliferation of international residential property development is bound up with the Malaysia My Second Home program (MM2H), a special long-term visit pass (renewable every 10 years) for foreigners to reside in Malaysia. This investment migration program was introduced by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture in 2002, with 42,000 participants having been approved to date. To encourage property-buying, for example, MM2H participants are allowed to withdraw partial of the required fixed deposit from the second year onwards (RM50,000 for aged 50 years and above or RM150,000 for aged 50 years and below) for expenses related to house purchase. It is important to note that, since 2020, the federal governments lowered the minimum price threshold from RM1 million to RM600,000 (under condominium/apartment segment) for the purchase of properties by MM2H participants with an attempt to solve property overhang. A total of 31,661 unsold residential units recorded by the end of the first half of 2020 for whole Malaysia, while Johor (6,166 units) and Selangor (4,865 units) faced the most severe situation of property oversupply (Napic, 2020). Here comes the questions. To what extent has MM2H accelerated capital growth in residential property? Would it have actually worsened the problem of property oversupply and housing affordability?

Despite the fact that there is no government or market data enabling us to answer the above questions, however, the whole idea of MM2H is capitalising on off-shore investment, privileged lifestyle and ability to hold long-term visit pass for small-scale investors. To resonate with Aihwa Ong’s concept of ‘flexible citizenship’ (1999), MM2H elucidated such intention by maximising capital accumulation from strategies of migration and border-crossing flexibility. In recent years, both local and foreign developers have taken a great advantage from this opportunistic policy to scale-up their international property development. For example, Iskandar Malaysia regularised the formation of international zone in Iskandar Puteri (formerly known as Nusajaya) to allow more than 25,000 residential units built for the speculative market of ‘seamless border-crossing living’ between Singapore and Southern Johor (see Ng & Lim, 2017; Ng, 2020). A series of exclusive facilities such as international boarding schools, a world-class theme-park, a private yacht marina, healthcare centres and hotels have been developed to create a lifestyle matching the international standard. Forest City by Country Garden Pacificview is another housing mega-project where a well-capitalized Chinese developer has ventured into the emerging market of international property in Johor. This project takes the cue from Beijing’s promulgation of the Belt and Road Initiative to lure homebuyers from China and the neighbouring regions. These high-priced housing projects, however, did not make any direct contribution to the provision of affordable housing for Malaysians. To this end, MM2H can be best understood as a result of contingent overlaps of capitalist interests by state and real estate developers.

COVID-19 and the ‘Malaysia My Second Home Program’

The COVID-19 outbreak in Malaysia has caused an unprecedented disruption to the international property market and the operation of the MM2H program. As a result, new applications for MM2H have been suspended with no clear direction of when the program is to resume. This sudden decision has disrupted international property sales. Furthermore, movement restrictions triggered by the pandemic have reshuffled the MM2H holders’ privileges of border-crossing and visiting their Malaysian homes. For example, the Johor-Singapore border closures have a far-reaching impact on everyday border-crossing practices, not to mention the existing business of international property. Although MM2H pass holders may apply for entry permission to return to Malaysia, the government enforced entry restrictions on foreigners who are travelling from countries that have recorded over 150,000 COVID-19 cases. In addition, all passengers travelling into Malaysia are required to serve a two-week-long mandatory quarantine at dedicated quarantine centres.

Several MM2H pass holders and consultants reported to local news media regarding their dissatisfaction over a lack of clear directions and considerations given by the Malaysian authorities (see Free Malaysia Today, 22 May 2020; The Star, 9 June 2020; Thomas, 2020; Davison, 2020). In brief, they wish for MM2H pass holders to be treated equally as citizens because they have been contributing a large amount of direct investment to the country’s economy. To a certain extent, these situations expose the instability and vulnerability of the MM2H program. For the government, perhaps the time is ripe to think more rigorously about this investment migration program in terms of risk management, investor relations and inclusiveness. For the real estate developers, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed underlying concerns over ‘sustainability’ of the current business model and growth strategies of international property. What still makes these high-priced residential projects attractive when the selling point of cross-border mobility can no longer be taken for granted? Given a realistic view that the coronavirus pandemic might take up to several years until it is under control globally, the market responses towards international property in the post-coronavirus era remain uncertain.

How helpful are the National Budget 2021 for Malaysians to buy home?

Housing affordability is a prevailing issue in Malaysia, especially for urban dwellers. Between 2002 and 2016, the country’s overall housing affordability worsened significantly where Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, and Johor were ranked under ‘seriously unaffordable’ category (Khazanah Research Institute, 2019). Although there are more than 31,000 unsold units available in the market, these units are simply unaffordable for the majority of Malaysians.

How does the government help Malaysians toward home ownership amid the coronavirus pandemic? Reintroduced under the Short-Term Economic Recovery Plan by the federal government in June 2020, the Home Ownership Campaign provides stamp duty exemption on instruments of transfer (for properties below RM1 million) and instruments on securing loans exemption (between RM300,000 to RM2.5 million), as well as a 10 percent price reduction but limited to those developers who have registered for the scheme. On 6 November 2020, the National Budget 2021 announced a series of initiatives targeted at increasing home ownership. An extension of full stamp duty exemption on instruments of transfer and loan agreements has been granted for first-time home buyers to buy new launch or sub-sale properties priced up to RM500,000.

How helpful are these stamp duty exemption schemes? Put simply, they will only benefit home buyers who managed to secure housing loans from banks. However, banks are likely to tighten lending standards because people’s debt-servicing capacity is deemed to have deteriorated due to potential retrenchment and recession, thus making it relatively difficult for people to own their first home.

Under the Budget 2021, the Ministry of Finance will allocate RM500 million to build 14,000 housing units for the B40 group, representing the bottom 40 percent of earners by income in Malaysia, and RM315 million for the construction of 3,000 units of Rumah Mesra Rakyat by Syarikat Perumahan Nasional Bhd. The government will also be offering a rent-to-own scheme for 5,000 PR1MA units limited to first-time home buyers. While Malaysians are recognising these positive attempts to build more affordable housing in the coming years, there is still a lack of immediate action taken by the government to solve pressing housing concerns. For example, there is a possibility to convert those underutilised public buildings and abandoned shopping malls as short-term solutions for the urban poor or homeless people. Moreover, there is a worrying tendency whereby private developers and government-linked developers are likely to focus on the luxury housing market (Lim & Ng, 2020). For the case of Medini Iskandar Malaysia, developers have been exempted from building low-cost housing as part of corporate social responsibility. In other cases, developers have preferred to pay penalties to local governments instead of meeting their responsibilities. In this regard, local governments should tighten the requirements for private developers to build affordable housing. While the country is actively promoting the MM2H program and international property market, the government must also put effort into answering this question – what is the right balance to juggle capital growth and housing affordability at the same time?

COVID-19 and housing affordability remaining as a huge challenge for Malaysia

Housing is increasingly being regularised towards a new geography of profits and politics in Asia (Chen & Shin, 2019). To turn property development into a rent-seeking mechanism, the government began to intervene housing policies and market-oriented practices. The two roles of ‘control’ and ‘exploit’ allow the government to expand their authority over public and private realms of property development. However, not only may these two roles lead to conflicts of interest between the state and non-state players involved, they also increasingly collide with social justice and governance integrity.

In Malaysia, both COVID-19 and housing affordability remain huge challenges. On the one hand, the coronavirus crisis has exposed new operational issues and policy concerns associated with the MM2H program. On the other hand, the vulnerability of international property market has been attributed to negative market sentiments due to movement restrictions. During these challenging times, the government should pay more attention to the local housing demand-supply mismatch and the reordering of state-business relationships in property development. International property development is a contested field of capital accumulation built upon market speculation. To avoid any irresponsible market speculations, the government should take stronger measures to guard against housing which is built for profit, not for living.

References

Chen, Y., & Shin, H. B. (eds.) (2019). Neoliberal urbanism, contested cities and housing in Asia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Davison, A. (29 September 2020). Writing on the wall: Is the MM2H programme doomed? Available at: https://www.expatgo.com/my/2020/09/29/writing-on-the-wall-is-the-mm2h-programme-doomed/ (Accessed 10 November 2020)

Free Malaysia Today, (22 May 2020). MM2H visa holder stranded abroad and confused. Available at: https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2020/05/22/mm2h-visa-holder-stranded-abroad-and-confused/ (Accessed 26 Oct 2020)

Haila, A. (2015). Urban land rent: Singapore as a property state. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Khazanah Research Institute (2019). Rethinking housing: Between state, market and society. Available at: http://www.krinstitute.org/assets/contentMS/img/template/editor/Rethinking%20Housing%20(Full%20Report)-%20EN%20Version.pdf (Accessed 14 November 2020).

Lim, G. & Ng, K.K (2020). Chapter 16: Johor’s housing policy and development trends. In: The SIJORI Series: Johor – the abode of development? Hutchinson, F. & Serina Rahman (eds.) p.424-446, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

NAPIC, The National Property Information Centre. Residential Unsold Status H1 2020. Available at: https://napic.jpph.gov.my/portal (Accessed 10 November 2020).

Ng, K.K & Lim, G. (2017). Beneath the Veneer: The Political Economy of Housing in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor, Trends in Southeast Asia, 12/2017, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

Ng, K.K (2020). Chapter 15: Johor Bahru’s urban transformation: authority and agency revisited. In: The SIJORI Series: Johor – the Abode of Development? Hutchinson, F. & Serina Rahman (eds.) p.407-423, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

Ong, A. (1999). Flexible citizenship: The cultural logics of transnationality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shatkin, G. (2017). Cities for profit: The real estate turn in Asia’s urban politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

The Star, (9 June 2020). MM2H visa holders hoping for clear directions. Available at: https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2020/06/09/mm2h-visa-holders-hoping-for-clear-directions (Accessed 26 Oct 2020)

Thomas, J. (7 July 2020). Country’s economy, image at stake in MM2H freeze, say consultants. Available at: https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2020/07/07/countrys-economy-image-at-stake-in-mm2h-freeze-say-consultants/ (Accessed 10 November 2020).

Dr Keng-Khoon Ng is Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Built Environment, UCSI University Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. He completed his PhD at the National University of Singapore in 2019. His research interest is in architecture, urban planning and the politics of urban transformation. He has written several publications about the urban changes in Johor’s Iskandar Malaysia.

This article was previously published by the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is republished by Insights on Southeast Asia following the Creative Commons rule: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/uk/

‘I am watching you’: COVID-19, economic crisis, and panopticon of the digital virus in Cambodia

Sokphea Young

sophiabelieve@gmail.com

Honorary Research Fellow, University College London, UK

Introduction

In Southeast Asia, Cambodia is the most impoverished nation whose economy relies on garment and manufacturing industries, apart from tourism and agriculture. The country’s garment and manufacturing sector, especially the garment and footwear industry, emerged in the early 1990s after the first general elections organised by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The United States and the European Union (EU) have supported Cambodia’s export-driven economy through their Generalised Systems of Preferences (GSP) and other trade schemes. The EU, for example, has allowed Cambodia to export duty-free and quota-free to its market since 2001 under the Everything but armed (EBA) scheme. These have boosted Cambodia’s garment sector that now employs about 600,000 Cambodians, most of whom are women from rural areas. With the support of the garment and other industries, Cambodia has managed to significantly reduce poverty and transformed its economy to become a lower-middle-income country in 2016. Annually, Cambodia exported about EUR4 billion (2017-2019) (European Commission 2020) and USD 4 billion (2017-2019) (United States Census Bureau, 2021) of apparel products and goods to the EU and the US markets, respectively. As such, the manufacturing industry contributes about 10 per cent (2017-2019) to the Cambodian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (World Bank, 2020).

While these supports are significant to the country and her people, the Royal Government of Cambodia’s human rights, and freedom of association and speech, and democracy in general, have been sabotaged as the country has leaned towards authoritarianism, including the dissolution of the prominent opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017, and the on-going intimidation and spurious arrests of human rights and environmental defenders, restricting space of civil society organisations. These restrictions have provoked the EU to withdraw its EBA scheme to Cambodia, harming workers and its related sector. Many factories were forced to shut down without proper indemnities for the employees.

Coincided with the imposing tariff by the EU, Cambodia’s economy, especially its garment and manufacturing, are doubly punished by the emergence of coronavirus (COVID-19), which spread across the world. Not only have pandemic severely disrupted the global supply chain and markets of garment and manufacturing industries, leaving many jobless, but it has also affected the entire country’s socio-economics. The lack of proper remedial measures to the impacts by the government has sparked dissatisfaction, provoking activism. Amid the country’s leaning toward authoritarianism as manifested by the 2018 election, and the restriction imposed by the government to contain the virus, many were forced to stay at home, compelled to subscribe to digital platforms for study, works, communication, and activism. This has reframed those who have been affected by the EU’s sanction and pandemic not to stage offline (on-street) but online activities to advocate for better solutions. 

In this blog, I seek to understand online activities and activism during the pandemic and examine the adverse consequences of offline avoidance in the time of the pandemic. This blog argues that the endeavour, either by the state or individuals, to avoid offline activities to contain the virus, has adversely induced a new form of virus, that is digital surveillance, that has infiltrated everyone’s digital devices. More than the panopticon of the virus, which may be observed as symptoms showed, the new form of digital virus embodies and incubates in every device, smartphone, without showing a symptom like COVID-19. While social media is a COVID-19 free platform for ordinary citizens and activists to connect and express their concerns during the pandemic, this platform is an invisible hand of surveillance of the governed body.

This blog is written based on my on-going observation of Cambodia’s socio-political and technological development, employing digital ethnography to collect data from digital sources and from observing relevant social media pages and profiles. Quantitative data presented in this blog is acquired from using Google Search, focusing on “news” media outlets captured by Google search engine.  

The remainder of this blog begins with a discussion about conceptualising how digital media become a new form of digital virus, a form of the pandemic that is neither known to us, in the context of surveillance. It then illustrates how COVID-19 induces Cambodians to subscribe to social media and digital devices before providing evidence on how the latter would strengthen an authoritarian surveillance system.

Panopticon of virus and digital technologies

The digital community has been recognised as a modern tool of human development and evolution. Many have been impressed by this evolution as digital machines and devices can process data and circulate images and voices from a community to another. Kittler (2010, p.11) argues that “machines take tasks – drawing, writing, seeing, hearing, word-processing, memory and even knowing – that once were thought unique to humans and often perform them better”. Given this capability, digital devices and machines like smartphones and cloud devices, become a modern type of panoptic tools incubated in our everyday lifestyle. The devices and the internet are now replacing our basic needs. Drawing on Foucault’s (2012) conception of the panoptic prison cell, these devices gradually observe and incubate in our body and mind without warning us; health applications are exemplars in this context. It is like a virus that has affected us by having not given us a symptom of it.  As we unintendedly concede or consent to do so, this new type of digital virus has extracted our personal and privacy data for buyers’ commercial and political purposes. Zuboff (2019) rightly illustrates that access to the digital community exposes oneself to a significant risk. It is a risk of losing or co-opting their privacy rights, rendering privacy data (our private space in essence) to the corporate giants. Having submitted to the machine learning system, holding the state and politicians accountable to citizens, primarily through activism, is facing difficulties. More often than not, for profit-making purposes, the media corporate capitalists tend to co-opt with the surveillance and authoritarian states to gain legitimate power as in the US presidential and UK parliamentary elections.

Drawing on how activists and state interact in China, MacKinnon (2010) introduces a concept of “networked authoritarianism”, which is a political tactic that creates selective social openings for transparency but, in fact, monitors and stifles dissents (He & Warren 2011). This networked authoritarianism in the digital era is framed based on the notion of a networked society whose key social structures and activities are organised and linked electronically (Castells 2010). The networked authoritarian Chinese government, for instance, allows people to use the internet to submit grievances or unjust activities, but the government also monitors who reports or submits the grievances. In China, only specific applications or types of social media platform are allowed to use, and this eases the ruling regime to scrutinise and surveil the users to curb outrageous dissents. The use of these digital communication technologies also induces side effects, one of which is the exposure to the surveillance system (Howard & Hussain 2013), a critical concern for digital activism in the non-democracy ruling systems that appear to have adopted the Chinese authoritarian style of panoptic surveillance.

Cambodia’s online community and activism amid the pandemic

The foregoing theorisation of how digital communication and technologies render risks reverberates Cambodia’s and other countries’ situation during the pandemic. Following the instruction of the government not to mobilise or conduct physical contacts, especially in education and office works, the pandemic has forced millions of Cambodians to subscribe to digital devices and communication platforms. By September 2020, about 67% (11.28 million of about 16 million) of Cambodians have subscribed to Facebook (NapoleonCat, 2020), making this social media site a popular means of communication among Cambodian people, particularly youth. This figure climbed from about 9.73 million subscribers in December 2019, before the pandemic, and it gradually increased to 9.78 million users in January 2020 when the pandemic was not widely spread into the country. As the COVID-19 began to import to the country in early February 2020, the number of subscribers surged rapidly to 10.52 million in March and 10.95 million in May the same year (see Figure 1). Young adults and children are among the new subscribers with the age range between 13-17 (7.8%), 18-24 (31.4%) and 25-34 (47.5%) as of March 2020 (NapoleonCat, 2021). Likewise, the number of cellular smartphone subscribers also increased as these devices are required to access social media: Facebook, Telegram and YouTube. International Telecommunication Union (2020) reports that the number of mobile cellular phone subscribers in Cambodia increased from 19.42 million in 2018 to at least 21.42 million in 2019. Compared to the total population of 16 million, 2019 data suggests that a Cambodian could afford at least two phones (Young 2021a). Given the low quality of education, the higher percentage of young subscribers causes critical concern on data and privacy issue, and the users’ rights. These young adults and children subscribe to the internet and social media for online education, watching Livestream lectures or pre-recorded video teaching. Albeit the supervision of their parents or guardian, we have seen many of these users are addicted to online movies on YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok, online game, and exposed to inappropriate contents, instead of access to teaching materials.

Figure 1: Number of Facebook subscribers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Source: Author’s compilation from NapoleonCat, 2020

Not only did the pandemic compel ordinary Cambodians to go online, but it also affected Cambodia economy (coincided with the partial withdrawal of the EBA programme). Coupled with the decline of the purchase order in the apparel and footwear industries, Cambodia’s GDP growth in 2020 was predicted to be between -1 to -2.9 per cent, and that about 1.76 million jobs were also at risk (World Bank, 2020). The World Bank emphasised that the poverty rate in the country is to increase by 20 per cent. Some factories closed down as they were either affected by the impact of COVID-19 on the global supply chain or by the withdrawal of the EU’s EBA scheme. This raised the affected population’s concerns, especially garment and manufacturing workers, to seek the government’s intervention and remedies. Given the government’s restrictions on physical movement, the ability to lobby the government and concerned stakeholders were limited to online activities. They began to use social media platforms such as Facebook to express the grievances such as indemnities (as the factories were shut-down) and dissatisfaction with the government’s intervention in remedying job loss and cut due to COVID-19.  Either made by individuals or media outlets, news on job losses and cuts, people’s dissatisfaction with the government measures was widely observed.

Figure 2: Women rights and arrests report on digital media and news[1]

Source: Author, 2021

As I traced the development of news on women workers on Google Search (see Figure 2), we found that “women rights Cambodia” are often reported by local and international media outlets: the number of its citations has increased from 47,000 times in 2019 to 66,100 time in 2020 (September). While digital and social media become platforms for disgruntled women to frame and amplify their concerns to the public, the endeavour has not been the ideal solution. By querying the term “women workers arrest” in Cambodia, I found that the frequency of the term mentioned in digital media exploded from 7,170 times in 2019 to 43,800 times in 2020 (September). This signified that many women workers or activists were arrested, detained or harassed by the authority. For instance, a women worker, who was a member of a union, was arrested because her post on Facebook criticised her employer, who dismissed 88 workers without following the government of Cambodia’s guidelines and instructions not to cut jobs but reduce workers’ wage government instruction (Kelly & Grant 2020). Following her post, the employer decided to re-employ the workers, and she immediately deleted her post from Facebook, but, still, the employer filed a complaint against her accusing that she created fake news to defame the company and the buyers. The ability to notice who is posting thing or creating news from their smartphone onto Facebook has indicated how effective the government’s surveillance system is. In one instance, the prime minister of Cambodia who has been in power for more than three decades claimed that smartphone allows the government to track and trace anyone effectively (Young 2021b; Young 2021c). He claimed that “If I want to take action against you, we will get [you] within seven hours at the most” (Doyle 2016). Anyone dares to speak against the supreme leaders and or the governance system; the consequence thereof is predictable based on the statement.

Figure 3. Number of people arrested between 2010 and 2020

Source: modified from Young & Heng, 2021

While many Cambodians resorted to online to contain and prevent the spread of the virus, human rights, political activists, environmental and human right defenders, workers and protesters also resort to online activities. As they go online, they submit to a new form of authorities or what I call a “surveillance virus”, which surrounds the users every time. As in Figure 3 above, it appears that the pandemic causes a surge of spurious arrests of political activists, environmental and human rights defenders, workers, and protesters. The increase in the arrest in 2019 was induced by two important reasons. First, authorities arrested those activists who were disgruntled with the dissolution of the opposition party (CNRP) in 2017 prior to the 2018 election. The election allowed the ruling party to take control of all national assembly seats and Hun Sen to remain in power for more than three decades (Young 2021c). Secondly, the arrests were made in response to those who supported the attempt of CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy (who has lived in exile abroad since 2016), to return to Cambodia in 2019. As of September 2020, the number of people arrested by authorities increased to 55, alarming the international communities’ concerns over the country’s tendency to practice authoritarianism amid the pandemic. The arrest is enabled by a form of “networked authoritarianism” as put forward by MacKinnon (2010) in China, where the governed body allowed online grievance submissions, but tackling those critical ones as their comments or grievances undermine the ruling regime’s authority and legitimacy. Cambodian activists’ critiques of how the ruling government handled the pandemic and socio-economic issues, and also other social issues during the crisis have been subject to scrutiny and surveillance, of which social media-mediated-devices are invisible tools of the ruling system.

Conclusion

In this blog, I have demonstrated how COVID-19 has affected not only Cambodia’s economy, but also pushed many Cambodians to go online, subscribing to digital platforms. Digital media platforms are believed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, but such endeavour has apparently compelled the users to be infected by a new form of virus, digital surveillance whose symptom may not be diagnosed or known to the users but the governed body. This form of the digital virus has surrounded users, placing the users in a panoptic prison cell of the surveillance system. The users only realise that they are in the cell when the observers/guards (the government in this instance) take actions against them, as illustrated by women workers and activists in the present study and beyond. This new type of virus has tightened the authoritarian surveillance system to effectively monitor the subject’s antagonistic behaviour, citizens and activists, which may undermine the ruling system’s legitimacy.    


[1] I used key terms to search on Google, and classified the results of the search by year. To ensure that all search results are about Cambodia, “Cambodia” are always added to individual terms when searched on Google, “Women workers arrest Cambodia” for example. These search results are limited to “news” rather than “all” results in the Google search engine.

References

Castells, M 2010 The rise of the network society: Information age: Economy, society, and culture. West Sussex: Willey-Blackwell.

Doyle, K 2016 Cambodian leaders’ love-hate relationship with Facebook, 7 January 2016. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-35250161 (Last accessed on 20 January 2021).

European Commission 2020 Countries and regions, 18 June 2020. Available at www.ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/cambodia/index_en.htm (Last accessed on 26 July 2020).

He, B and Warren, M E 2011 Authoritarian deliberation: The deliberative turn in Chinese political development.  Perspectives on Politics 9 (2): 269-289.

Howard P N & Hussain M M 2013 Democracy’s fourth wave? Digital media and the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

International Telecommunication Union 2020 Mobile-cellular subscription 2020, 18 January 2021. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx (Last accessed on 25 February 2021).

Kelly, A and Grant H 2020 Jailed for a Facebook post: garment workers’ rights at risk during Covid-19, 16 June 2020. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/16/jailed-for-a-facebook-post-garment-workers-rights-at-risk-during-covid-19 (Last accessed on 20 January 2021).

Kittler, F 2010 Optical media. Cambridge: Polity

MacKinnon, R 2010 Networked authoritarianism in China and beyond: Implications for global internet freedom. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

NapoleonCat 2020 Facebook users in Cambodia: September 2020. Available at www.napoleoncat.com/stats/facebook-users-in-cambodia/2020/09 (Last accessed on 26 July 2020).

NapoleonCat 2021. Facebook users in Cambodia: March 2020. Available at https://napoleoncat.com/stats/facebook-users-in-cambodia/2020/03 (Last accessed on 1 February 2021)

United States Census Bureau 2021 Trade in goods with Cambodia. Available at  www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5550.html (Last accessed on 15 January 2021).

World Bank 2020 Cambodia economic update: Cambodia in the time of COVID-19. Washington DC: World Bank.

Young, S & Heng, K 2021 Digital and social media: How Cambodian women’s rights workers cope with the adverse political and economic environment amid COVID-19. Lund: Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

Young, S 2021a Citizens of photography: visual activism, social media and rhetoric of collective action in Cambodia. South East Asia Research. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/0967828X.2021.1885305

Young, S 2021b Internet, Facebook, competing political narratives, and political control in Cambodia. Media Asia. DOI: http://dx.doi.orgdoi.org/10.1080/01296612.2021.1881285

Young, S 2021c Strategies of authoritarian survival and dissensus in Southeast Asia: Weak Men versus Strongmen. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zuboff, S 2019 The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for the future at the new frontier of power. New York: Profile Books.

Author information

Sokphea Young obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the University College London (UK). His research interests are in the areas of civil society, social media, citizenship, Chinese globalism, and political development in Southeast Asia. His research published in Journal of International Relations and Development, the Chinese Journal of Comparative Law, Journal of Civil Society, Asian Politics & Policies, Asian Journal of Social Science, South East Asia Research, Media Asia, and Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. He is the author of the forthcoming book entitled “Strategies of authoritarian survival and dissensus in Southeast Asia: Weak Men versus Strongmen” with Palgrave Macmillan (June 2021).

Acknowledgements

The author received financial support for this article’s research from the European Research Council-funded project entitled PHOTODEMOS (Citizens of photography: The camera and the political Imagination), grant number 695283, at the University College London.

This blog was previously published by SLE Southeast Asia Blog

A long-haul fight during COVID-19: A risky journey from the UK to Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Singapore)

Dear Insights on Southeast Asia

I have enjoyed reading this new blog for a while. As a contribution to the blog, I am writing to share my flight experience from the UK (London) to Southeast Asia (Cambodia) via Singapore. I hope this experience is worth sharing to readers who wish to fly from the UK or Europe Cambodia. In this journey, I will also compare how the UK or probably even the whole EU, handle travellers to contain COVID-19 at London Heathrow Airport with Southeast Asian nations (Singapore, Cambodia). After experiencing about nine months lockdown and living in a square room and coping with stress, last month, I decided to travel to Cambodia, my home country, as I see COVID-19 in the country was not much worse compared to the UK, between 16,000-19,000 cases per day. However, the recent outbreak in Cambodia has disappointed my plan, but I have to fly because I already paid for the airfare.

Almost two months ago, before flying or choosing airlines, I did some researches and asked friends who had experience of a long-haul flight (up to 15 hours in total to exclude layover). I chose Singapore Airline. There are flights via South Korea, Thailand, and Japan, but I chose Singapore Air in term of airfare, service and safety measures.

A month before my departure, I prepared 4 3M/N95 masks (1: for inflight, 1: transit, 1: another flight, and 1 when you landed in Cambodia), a transparent face shield, hand sanitiser jells, cough sweets, and diarrhoea and flu tablets. I like cough sweet the most, even I am healthy, but it is very dehydrated on 13 hours flight from London to Singapore. I took immune pills two weeks before the flight to boost my immune system. I BELIEVE THIS IS ESSENTIAL EVEN YOU DO NOT TRAVEL BY AIRE. I STRONGLY RECOMMENDED N95 Mask as in the photo. Unlike other masks, this one is much convenient because when you speak your lips will not touch the mask layers. Imagine 13 hours flight, you will smell YOUR OWN MOUTH and get sick by that.

To the Airport. Compared to public transportation: buses and underground trains, I would spend some money on a private taxi, or Uber to be safe. Travel alone is better than with unknown herds using public transpiration services. You may know that the spike of COVID cases in the UK is linked to public transportations. London underground is a crowded since they do not have proper seat arrangement, social distancing and space between travellers to avoid close contact.

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At London Heathrow. I arrived at the airport about 2.5 hours before the flight. At Terminal 2, there was no standard social distancing arrangement besides queueing from the passenger drop off section to the check-in counters.  Not many cared about social distancing, 2 or 1.5 meters apart from each other, even FACE COVER (they called it that, not a mask; I FOUND FACE COVER unhelpful) is compulsory inside the terminal. At the check-in counter, I was asked to present a health certificate: COVID-19-free. I was exempted since I was travelling to my home country (I will explain that it is not helpful at all). After checking in, I went through a security check, and again there was no proper arrangement beside lining, not even 1.5 meters apart. THIS MIGHT BE THE CASE WHY THE TRANSMISSION RATE IN THE UK or EU increased sharply after first or second waves or lockdown.

Inside Heathrow’s departure terminal: Shops are opening, and as you know, BLACK FRIDAY remains, and you can still enjoy duty-free shopping. Discount everywhere. You can kill time and wander around shopping, and some of them do not respect social distancing.

Before boarding: I had temperature checked by Singapore Airline staff and was called by our row and seat number to board the flight, to avoid the crowd. Before entering the plane, each of us gets a health kit bag containing a hand sanitiser, a mask, a wipe, and a bottle of water.

In the plane: we were arranged to sit with empty seat/ space in between seats we were assign (unless you know each other you can chose to seat together). IT IS AN EXCELLENT IDEA, and I FELT SAFE instead of sitting next to an unknown person (I MET a CAMBODIAN STUDENT FROM AUSTRALIA said her flight from Brisbane to Singapore arranged seat the same mine). ONE IMPORTANT NOTE is that if you could check online and select your preferred seats would be great. I DID SELECT SEAT in advance. I would recommend those at the EXIT AREA, LAST ROW, and ROW against the laboratory seats to avoid being SURROUNDED. If you cannot do that, you might be lucky to sit next to those EU/UK citizens who have COVID-19-free certificate. I WOULD FEEL SAFE TO SIT NEARBY THESE FOREIGNERS WHO HAD TEST NEGATIVE to board the flight. Test negative for COVID-19 is a must to travel to another country that is not your home.

Layover in Singapore. It was very unfortunate that I had 8 hours of layover in Singapore. All passengers were disembarked row by row, about 3-5 rows at a time. Those who transited at Changi Airport were well directed by a guide to the transit hall. TEMPERATURE WAS TAKEN as soon as you disembark, and BEFORE ENTERING THE transit HALL. Wrist bands were given to identify us as layover passengers. There, we were not allowed to move around like in London. If you want to eat and shop, you need to order online (there is a banner instructing how to do so). Duty-free shopping need to be placed at least 8 or 12 hours in advance. I THINK THIS IS WHY SINGAPORE COULD CONTAIN COVID-19 TRANSMISSION and or imported CASES. To avoid a close contact with other passengers, I located myself somewhere at the corner of the hall.

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SINGAPORE-CAMBODIA: Before boarding, we were again asked to queue about 10-20 passengers each line with at least 1 m apart. They rechecked our temperature. A number of Cambodian flocks flown (mostly) from Malaysia joined us. The guide/staff navigated and led group by group to the security check. AGAIN, We were given health kit as we board. But, UPON BOARDING I WAS DISAPPOINTED THAT THE AIRLINE (Silk Air, a regional subsidiary of Singapore Airlines) did not follow the long-haul flight standard mentioned above. All seats were occupied except three rows left empty as the flight attendant told me that they reserved for quarantine or in case if anyone gets sick they would isolate him or her there. I AM DISAPPOINTED that we were asked to stay apart during the transit but HAD TO PACK US TOGETHER in a tinny Airplane. EVEN MASKS are still compulsory, but we sit close to each other. From HERE YOU DO NOY TRUST your CAMBODIAN FELLOWS since, like me, THEY DIDN’T COVID-19-Free certificate. IT seems Singapore does not care when they send travellers out of their country. THIS MIGHT BE THE CAUSE of COVID-19 transmission and importing CASES to CAMBODIA. The Government of Cambodia should instruct incoming flights to follow space inside the plane.

FOOD dining is the most CONTAGIOUS time in this small flight. When foods and drinks were served, everyone removed masks and dug in. THIS IS a risky time, but I DID NOT EAT UNTIL the nearby passengers ate. BUT, I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO SIT NEXT TO A FOREIGNER. AS I TOLD YOU BEFORE, THEY WERE ONCE TESTED NEGATIVE up to 72 hours before boarding the flight.

Food and drink served Singapore-Phnom Penh

LANDING in PHNOM PENH. Again, DISAPPOINTED since passengers compete to get out of the plane, and the cabin crews did not advise them to disembark row by row like the long-haul flight. NO SOCIAL DISTANCING at all.

Passengers were about to disembark

IMMIGRATION CHECK and COVID-19 TESTING. I think many have written on this aspect, I should not spend more time on this. We had to fill out health status and condition and presented to the Health Officer to inspect. AGAIN, WE NEED TO line up, and there was no social distancing practice (by passengers). YOU KNOW THAT THE AIRPORT IS SMALL; it cannot follow Singapore. From there you will be given a form to fill out your choice of QUARANTINE ACCOMMODATIONs: Free and private hotel. In the form, you must include your personal info, and contact information (phone and e-mail). As I once heard about the condition of free accommodation, I CHOSE HOTEL as I will need to work during this period. AS I SAID BEFORE, it is a must now that all passengers are required to quarantine 14 days at the hotel and the free accommodation, not two days to get the test result and check out to quarantine yourself at home.

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I proceeded to collect my baggage and presented the health information form to the doctors who interviewed where about I would stay after the quarantine period (part of the contact tracing).  From there, samples were taken from your mouth and noise. You will be asked to remove your face mask. Upon the samples were taken, you must wear you mask immediately as I believe it is where people were asked unmask; it can be a CONTAGIOUS area. DON’T be scared, ALL DOCTORS and OFFICERs were equipped with Personal Protection Equipment’s (PPE).

Waiting to be transferred to the hotel by a bus

Transferring to the hotel was complicated as well. AGAIN, NO SOCIAL DISTANCING AT ALL. It was confusing as not many officers could speak English well. Some foreigners joined different queues: hotel and free accommodation. It took about 2 hours to get ready on the bus to the hotel. Both foreigners and Khmer passengers were frustrated with the arrangement. I THINK IT IS TYPICAL BUSINESS AS USUAL IN THIS COUNTRY.

I will tell you more how I felt when I was transferred to the hotel. It is again a typical thing. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, please comment and I will respond.

The Unpredictable Way of Pandemics in Global Politics

Sorpong Peou | Ryerson University | Canada

I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist, nor am I a medical scientist of any sort, but my interest in pandemics is based on my understanding that they have emerged as a source of threat to peace and security on different levels: human, national, and international. Pandemics can indeed threaten global peace and security. From my perspective, the way of pandemic is still largely unpredictable.

This does not mean social scientists can’t predict or theorize about some of the effects of epidemics and pandemics on our world, which include the following: the Antoine Plague of 165-180, the Black Death of 1347–53, avian influenza (i.e., the bird flu, caused by a virus, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 and the Swine Flu of 2009), and corona-viruses (such as SARS of 2003 and COVID-19 of 2020).

Epidemics and pandemics are killers. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD) killed a third of the Roman Empire’s population. The Plague of Justinian (541 AD), which spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe, killed between 25 and 50 million people. The Black Death killed approximately 25 million people, almost one-third of Europe’s population. The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population, and killed at least 50 million people. The Swine Flu of 2009 killed between 151,000 and 575,000 people worldwide. Corona-viruses are also killers. The SARS pandemic reportedly infected 8,098 and left 774 people dead, but the COVID-19 has been more devastating: having infected close to 2 million people in a matter of several months and left more than 100,000 dead.

On one level, we can say that pandemics pose a threat to human security: they kill people, but we don’t really know when exactly and from where the next one will strike. So far, Asia has been a region where some big pandemics originated: the Black Death (China and Inner Asia), avian influenza (i.e., the 1957-58 Asian Flu, the 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu, and the 1997 Bird Flu). The last two corona-viruses also broke out in Asia: SARS (China) and COVID-19 (China). But pandemics also have a history of originating in other regions: the Spanish Flu originated in Spain and the 2009 Swine Flu in Mexico. The first ever-recorded pandemic broke out in Athens, an ancient Greek state (known as the Plague of Athens around 430-426 B). The Antoine Plague swept through the Roman Empire. The Plague of Justinian may have started in Egypt. Thus, where the next pandemic will strike is hard to know.

The negative effects of COVID-19 on human security can be be identified when social-economic consequences are further assessed. According to ILO Director-General Guy Ryder who spoke early in April 2020, the economic effects of this pandemic could exceed the global financial crisis in 2008 and could result in a loss of closer to 200 million jobs within the next several months.

On another level, epidemics and pandemics can also threaten national and international security in different ways. Firstly, they may have devastating consequences for states and societies in that they can produce domestic instability, civil war, or even civil-military conflict. Price-Smith (2002), for instance, puts it this way, “the potential for intra-elite violence is increasingly probable and may carry grave political consequences, such as coups, the collapse of government, and planned genocides.”

Secondly, both epidemics and pandemics may also result in disputes between or among states because of potential disagreement over appropriate policy responses. For instance, this new round of China-U.S. tension is related to COVID-19, and some observers think that the pandemic has the potential to cause a military confrontation or even a Cold War between the two world powers.

Thirdly, they may alter the balance of power between competitive states within the international security system and lead to conflict. The diminished size of a population may provide a greater incentive for some state or a social group unaffected by a pandemic to attempt military conquest. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD), for instance, swept through the Roman Empire and devastated its armies. A recent example of how a pandemic might affect the balance of power is when COVID-19 infected more than 580 sailors of a 4,865-person crew aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a US aircraft carrier deployed to the Pacific Ocean and docked on March 27. Another recent development was when some 50 crew members aboard Charles de Gaulle (France’s only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) were positive.

Fourthly, epidemics and pandemics may also alter the outcome of international conflict. For instance, Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), not only because of Sparta’s military might but also because of an epidemic that broke out in Athens around around 430 B.C. and killed between one-third and two-thirds of the Athenian population.

While history can help shed some light on the dangerous effects of pandemics in global politics, it’s important to bear in mind that they remain unpredictable. They are killers for sure and may or may not cause domestic instability and violent conflict when states and societies suffer from economic, financial, and political crises, but a world war or a Cold War is very unlikely nor is it inevitable.

Much still depends on what states and their peoples choose to do. The threat of a great pandemic like COVID-19 may bring them together. Sometimes there is nothing more unifying a popularized world than a common foe, but a dangerous pandemic may also drive them apart as some evidence may suggest, especially when state leaders blame each other or when some of them exploit this global threat to advance their own geo-strategic interests and pursue their own political ambitions.

This is a possible thesis topic! Share your thoughts with me if you think otherwise. I will share more of my arguments on this topic in my book to be published someday, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. He was formerly Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Winnipeg (Manitoba), and Chair of the Advisory and Recruitment Committee for The Manitoba Chair of Global Governance Studies – a joint program between the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. His major books include Human Security Studies: Theories, Methods and Themes (World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 2014); Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific (Praeger 2010), Human Security in East Asia: Challenges for Collaborative Action, ed. (Routledge 2008), International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan 2007), Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Toward Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworms, 2001); and Conflict Neutralization in the Cambodia War: From Battlefield to Ballot-box (Oxford University Press, 1997).

This article was originally published by his personal page: http://www.sorpongpeou.com on April 13, 2020

Cambodia Needs to Increase Investment in Online Education

Sun Sokna | Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School |Siem Reap |Cambodia

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused shocking and far-reaching effects on the education of millions of students all around the world. It has forced schools and universities to shut down as countries applied staged lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. In Cambodia, all public and private schools from kindergartens to universities across the country were ordered closed in mid-March. All of a sudden, online learning has become the country’s only means for the continuation of education for Cambodian students.

By resorting to online learning or e-learning, Cambodia has been able to continue to provide education to 3.2 million students. The flexibility and adoption of online education was ad hoc and therefore posed new challenges. Problems with the lack of access to online learning platforms have led to further unequal opportunities for learning. The inadequacy of infrastructure for online education has also left a great number of students in rural areas behind, while poor technological skills among many education staff throughout the country have made online education a cumbersome job to do. All of these mean that more than three million students have to wait for the coronavirus period to pass before they could return to normal face-to-face lessons.

The old normal is not going to happen anytime soon given the current situation although the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) has allowed many schools and public universities to reopen. MoEYS has been faced with real pressure to digitalize the education system overnight, mainly to respond to the disruption to education when COVID-19 vaccine is yet to be manufactured. In this situation, reforms to traditional classrooms and pedagogy are needed in order for Cambodia to catch up with that in the region and in the rest of the world.

As a national institution responsible for the education of Cambodians, MoEYS needs to continue to work with partners and the private sector to create special apps and websites for teachers and students to use. These online platforms have played a fundamental role in modernizing teaching and learning in Cambodia. Teachers and students can access these platforms at any time via smartphones or other electronic devices. However, students in rural areas still face challenges to access these platforms because some of them who come from low-income families are unable to purchase digital devices to use for their educational purposes. The internet accessibility is another obstacle as students in remote parts of the country may not have access to the internet or electricity. Thus, MoEYS needs to step up and work with all relevant stakeholders to improve access to online education nationwide.  

In addition, technical teams must be formed to help with technological issues and enable the smooth operation of online education. Technical staff should be able to play various roles, including introducing and maintaining a digital learning system, training teachers and students to use it, fixing or improving the system based on feedback from users, and giving consultation and technical assistance to principals, teachers and students. As e-learning specialists and operators, each member of the technical team should be well trained and equipped with knowledge of the teaching and learning process. More importantly, they should have good communication skills and know how to encourage, empower, and engage with teachers and students enthusiastically to build trust among the system users.

What the government must do is to continue to invest in online education on a national scale to ensure that all children can learn during and after the COVID-19 crisis without significant interruptions. Key partners and groups such as UNESCO, UNICEF, Cambodian Union of Youth Federation and other partners including NGOs and private companies can provide support necessary to establish robust online learning systems that schools and students across the country need.

I argue that Cambodia’s education system will transform itself and begin to catch up with the rest of the world only when technology is utilized to help students learn in a modern way. Modern learning devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers as well as good internet connection with national coverage are needed. Across the world, online education systems have been widely used to support students’ learning. To enhance its competitiveness, Cambodia must increase its investment in education, including online education, as this county needs capable human resources required to achieve its development vision.

In short, Cambodia must continue to invest in online education infrastructure and engage in deep education reforms to improve the education system that can produce quality human capital to drive economic growth. It is, no doubt, vital to modernize the education system that has long been regarded as underdeveloped, characterised by the lack of quality and innovation. Cambodia needs to prioritize the development of its education system and ensure that all Cambodians, especially the young, are provided with equal opportunities receive quality education.  

Read the article in PDF 

The Author

SUN Sokna is an English Program Manager and English teacher at Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School, fully sponsored by Le Don du Choeur. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of South-East Asia, Siem Reap, Cambodia. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from Build Bright University in Siem Reap. He has worked as a senior English teacher for Opportunities of Development thru Art in Siem Reap.

This article was previously published by Cambodian Education Forum on October 25, 2020

Challenges and opportunities of online learning in Cambodia during COVID-19

Chhoeurm Phearun | Cambodian Education Forum

Introduction

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak was declared as a global pandemic in March 2020 by the World Health Organization. In the middle of March 2020, educational institutions worldwide moved to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Cambodia, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) suddenly announced the closures of all schools and universities to prevent any potential widespread community transmission of the virus. Although MoEYS later announced the reopening of all schools and universities across the country, every educational institution must practice blended learning, maintain sanitation and follow health guidelines for COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 crisis has provided both challenges and opportunities for Cambodian education, particularly as regards the transformation of education from face-to-face classrooms to online learning. Because of COVID-19, educational institutions have shifted to online classes, posing enormous difficulties for teachers and students. Despite the many challenges, COVID-19 is seen as an opportunity for educational reforms and digital transformation of education. His Excellency Hang Chuon Naron, the Minister of Education, said that the challenges caused by the global pandemic can be turned into an opportunity by implementing digital education and improving the equality of accessibility and broadband internet connection.

Challenges of Online Learning amid the COVID-19 Crisis

The emergency school closure and the immediate transformation to online classes have affected millions of students nationwide. It has been reported that over 1.4 million Cambodian students are unable to access e-learning platforms during COVID-19. Having low digital competency and limited online learning-related experience and training, teachers and students especially those living in remote areas have been struggling with virtual education, causing unprecedented burdens and anxieties, stress, and other psychological problems. Lack of knowledge of how to use sophisticated online learning and communication platforms, such as Google Classroom and Zoom, together with the lack of digital literacy skills, has increased difficulties for educators and learners. 

While accommodating the contemporary changes in technology-based teaching and learning, teachers and students have encountered another significant obstacle regarding limited affordability. Some provincial students, especially those who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are the most vulnerable to fall behind since they do not have adequate technological devices, such as smartphones, computers, and tablets, to access their online learning, resulting in insufficient bandwidth and significantly less active performance. Although some students living in the city can afford their e-learning materials, high-cost internet services are still the inevitable issues. Yet, they also face other challenges, including noise distraction and limited digital literacy skills. 

During the school closures, even though MoEYS in collaboration with related partners immediately launched new online learning initiatives for students from grade 1 through 12 to promote distance learning and enhance optimal utilization of the information and communication technology (ICT), there are still a great number of challenges in terms of accessibility and connectivity. Students at all levels of education tended to simultaneously share similar problems, particularly unstable internet connection.

Consequently, children in some far-flung areas of Cambodia dropped out of school while some university students decided to temporarily suspend their studies, awaiting schools to reopen. Thus, the gap in socioeconomic status of students and their low digital competency have caused online learning to exacerbate the educational inequality confronting Cambodia. 

Opportunities of Online Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Despite facing considerable challenges, Cambodia has made an effective emergency response to avoid community transmission, resulting in great COVID-19 success. According to Heng (2020a), “Cambodia’s COVID-19 victory needs to be acknowledged and applauded.” However,social distancing and sanitation practices are still undeniable responsibilities of every individual regardless of the reopening of schools and universities or the continuation of online classes and blended learning.

Interestingly, having been through virtual learning and teaching for over eight months, some teachers and students may have viewed this challenge as an opportunity to advance digital competence, change traditional pedagogical approaches, and accelerate the digital transformation of education.

From another perspective, off-campus learning is seen as a blessing as it enables students to improve their independent and self-paced learning through a wide variety of digital platforms. Students are able to choose their optimal study environment and suitable study time. Over 200 video lessons are available on MoEYS’ official Facebook page, YouTube channel, and other e-learning platforms, including its related partners such as Kru Cambodia and Komar Rien Koma Cheh. Therefore, students can access online learning anytime they want.

At the same time, digital education has generated extremely beneficial outcomes for educators in terms of the implementation of competency-based teaching approaches in instructional delivery. According to UNESCO (2020), “A teacher delivering video lessons noted that she received high-quality support, including new teaching approaches, learning activities, and hygienic supplies, to ensure continuous education for learners.”

Additionally, home-based learning allows parents and students to strengthen strong bonds during this stressful time. Parents can also have the opportunity to provide care and support to help children continue with their academic endeavors. For teachers and students in the city, they could save time and travel expenses when studying online.

The Way Forward Post-COVID-19

Taking into account all of the issues in the time of the pandemic, Cambodia must consider and promote the continuity of online education since it plays pivotal roles in bringing about positive change, potentially moving Cambodia toward a technology-based society. The distinctive rise of distance learning worldwide during the COVID-19 outbreak is a key indicator showing that online learning would be as useful as traditional face-to-face education if practiced in the right way.

In light of the significant challenges facing the country’s education sector from pre-primary to higher education levels, Cambodia must continue to integrate ICT into education by using a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote blended learning, e-learning, and especially long-life learning.

MoEYS in collaboration with various partners must continue to bolster the capabilities of teachers and students and equipped them with distance-learning knowledge, technological literacy skills, and 21st century skills.

Reflecting on the current situation, Cambodia must maintain robust socioeconomic development to ensure that there is no significant gap between privileged and disadvantaged students in education while providing financial resources to support ICT integration to improve technological accessibility, availability of e-learning resources, and reliable internet connectivity.

Moving forward, educational research should be prioritized as it would determine the future of Cambodia, transforming the kingdom into a knowledge-based society. Heng (2020b, p. 2) argues that “Education and research are vital for Cambodia as it seeks to increase its relevance and competitiveness in the region.” Thus, having optimistic perspectives about the considerable benefits of research, the Minister of Education has been putting high efforts to promote a vibrant research culture and expand research capacities of Cambodian higher education institutions, lecturers, and students through various training research workshops and research competition. MoEYS and the Rector Council of Cambodia have, for example, organized the Annual Student Research Competition and Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s Research Prize, aimed at empowering Cambodian students to build their research capacity.

Overall, in the context of Industry 4.0, migration to online classes could be a catalyst for establishing new initiatives and methods to support student education at all levels. Quality education and research will lead Cambodia toward prosperity and development.

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The Author

Chhoeurm Phearun is an intern at Cambodian Education Forum. He is a senior student pursuing Bachelor’s degrees in Professional Communication and Tourism Management in the Department of English, Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Tony Fernandes School of Business, the University of Cambodia, respectively. Currently, he is also a selected Cambodian Student Ambassador at STEP Sociovation Forum in Singapore.

This article was originally published by Cambodian Education Form on November 25, 2020