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Vietnam's Foreign Aid When COVID-19 rates began rising in China in the winter of 2019, Vietnam, one of its near neighbors, did not hesitate to act. After experiencing devastating blows in previous years from the SARS virus, another respiratory illness, and the H5N1 virus, Vietnam acted quickly. The government of Vietnam instituted quarantines in cities throughout the country, began contract tracing within the first couple of months of the outbreak and focused on keeping the public as educated as possible. Between January and April 16, 2020, Vietnam recorded fewer than 400 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths. Furthermore, for almost 100 days after this period, Vietnam had zero cases of local transmission. Now, Vietnam’s foreign aid looks to help Vietnam’s neighbors, Laos and Cambodia.

COVID-19 in Laos and Cambodia

In April 2021, Laos and Cambodia suffered a surge of COVID-19 cases that brought concern o Vietnam. Vietnam expressed distress that April’s major national holidays would encourage a spike within Vietnam with people traveling between different countries, undoing Vietnam’s COVID-19 progress. In order to mitigate concerns of rising cases and the risk to Vietnam, Vietnam opted to extend foreign aid to Laos and Cambodia.

Helping Cambodia

In April 2021, the recently appointed Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Jakarta, Indonesia, “on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that had gathered to discuss the Myanmar crisis.” Shortly thereafter, discussions began about continued measures to decrease the impacts of COVID-19. Vietnam agreed to give foreign aid to Cambodia to strengthen its response to COVID-19. This came in the form of a $500,000 donation, “800 respirators, two million medical masks and 300,000 N95 masks.” In this act of aid, Vietnam expresses its close diplomatic relations with Cambodia.

Assisting Laos

Similar discussions also took place with Laos. In anticipation of more cross-border travel because of holiday festivities, Vietnam also offered foreign aid to Laos to strengthen its COVID-19 response. In a similar fashion to Cambodia, Laos also experienced a spike in cases toward the end of April 2021, however, the total number of deaths remains low at just five deaths.

According to The Laotian Times, in early May 2021, the Vietnamese government gave Laos $500,000 as well as medical resources and the support of 35 medical staff to help the country in its fight against COVID-19. The medical workers and resources from Vietnam arrived in Laos at Wattay International Airport. The medical supplies included “200 respirators, 10,000 kilograms of chloramine and two million face masks.”

A Beacon of Hope

Vietnam’s success against COVID-19 is a source of pride for the country. Vietnam’s COVID-19 response has also served as an inspiration to neighboring countries. The tactics put in place early on by the Vietnamese government helped facilitate its success in subsequent months when cases were rising elsewhere. Vietnam’s foreign aid during COVID-19 is helping its neighbors regain hope in recovery. Hopefully, as Vietnam’s foreign aid of both monetary stimulus and medical assistance helps countries recover, other countries will be inspired to reach out a helping hand as well.

– Grace Parker
Photo: Flickr

Freedom of the Press in Cambodia

Over the past few weeks, the freedom of the press in Cambodia has suffered significantly. The country normally displays an impressive ability to support unbiased news sources, but the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently directed a crackdown on opposing press organizations.

In anticipation of a threatening 2018 election, the government has shut down 19 radio stations and charged exorbitant taxes to other publications that do not support Hun Sen’s government. The U.S., European Union and the U.N. have all criticized the Cambodian government for its recent actions.

However, Hun Sen is empowered by President Trump’s attacks on free press and the current domestically-focused agenda, which has led to weak engagement with Southeast Asia. In recent years, social media has become a main source of news for Cambodians, and parties challenging the government have been able to use platforms such as Facebook to their advantage.

Social media use in Cambodia has surged dramatically since 2010, with the 2015 growth rate of Facebook users being 30 percent each year. Eight out of 10 of Cambodia’s most popular Facebook pages are political information sources, including news publications and political figures. Cambodians want personal connections with political figures, and thus value the opportunity to engage with candidates on Facebook. Another contributor to high political activity is the heated political climate which makes every issue into a political issue, according to deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua. Sochua believes that Facebook will be a crucial platform to communicate with Cambodians about her party’s values.

Hun Sen’s rival political candidate, Sam Rainsy, has accused Hun Sen of buying Facebook “likes.” The post landed him in prison for defamation, which is yet another example of the government suppressing the freedom of the press in Cambodia. Leaks revealing unflattering information about opposing parties is a common occurrence on political Facebook pages.

During the Arab Spring, social media proved to be a tool that allowed discontented citizens to organize and make their voices heard. In the week before Egyptian President Hosni Mubaraks resigned, tweets about politics increased from 2,300 to 230,000 per day. Videos featuring political protest or commentary went viral, building confidence in the peoples’ ability to organize to force the change they want to see.

Demands for political freedom on social media has inspired other nearby countries, sparking political discussion in the entire region. Government efforts to restrict discussion on social media has only fueled the change makers, since social media is much harder to control than traditional press organizations.

The desire for reform regarding freedom of the press must originate from the Cambodian people, and Facebook can be a tool used to amplify their voices. The Cambodians’ extensive involvement in politics on social media is a promising sign for their ability to come together to protect their political freedoms, even when the freedom of the press is being threatened.

Kristen Nixon

Photo: Flickr

cambodia_garment_protest
One bystander was killed and 20 people were injured when police clashed with protesting garment workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 12, 2013.

Workers at the SL Garment Processing Ltd. Factory, one of the largest in Cambodia and a supplier to many western brands including Gap and H&M, marched from the factory towards Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Pehn home to protest unfair wages and poor factory conditions. They were, however, blocked by police at Stung Meanchey bridge. Reports differ on which side started the violence, which escalated to more than 100 police officers firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition into the crowd, who were armed mainly with rocks and sticks. Police arrested 37 people, including seven monks, who were later released.

The march marked the three-month anniversary of 4,000 workers walking out of the SL factory to protest the presence of armed military police, which they viewed as an intimidation tactic meant to expel unions. Company shareholder Meas Sotha incited rage among workers with his claim that police were only there to protect the factory. SL 2 joined the strike, demanding raised salaries as well as a $3 per day lunch stipend and Sotha’s ousting.

Conditions in Cambodia’s more than 500 garment factories, though better than in some areas of the nation, are dismal. Wages are low—workers at SL, for example, make just $75 monthly—and factories are unsafe, with poor ventilation, recent collapses and regular fainting masses of malnourished workers. About 500,000 Cambodians work in garment and shoe factories, supporting the industry that accounts for 80% of the country’s exports. In 2012 alone, Cambodia exported $4.45 billion in products to the United States and Europe.

The protests erupted at a time of international attention on the garment industry following several deadly incidents at factories in Bangladesh, including a factory collapse at Rana Plaza that killed over 1,100 people in April. According to the New York Times, many multinational organizations are now looking to Cambodia as an alternative to factory locations in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, in Cambodia, strikes are frequent, though factory concessions are small and rare.

Workers at Alim Cambodia Co. Ltd. blocked a road in Phnom Phen on November 13, 2013 also protesting for higher wages. The demonstration was short-lived, breaking up due to rain when protestors became concerned they would get sick.  The Alim protestors were demanding a $1 lunch stipend, and were angry that the factory was paying new workers $93 monthly to their $89.

The Cambodian government has made few efforts to back garment workers, and seems largely indifferent to workers’ rights. In fact, government-official-mediated talks about wages between unions and SL ended in a deadlock.  Although the Cambodian People’s Party raised the monthly minimum wage from $61 to $75 earlier this year, reports by the local Community Legal Education Center and United Kingdom-based organization Labour Behind the Label found that a single garment worker needs at least $150 monthly to cover basic needs.

The United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) released a report calling for the compliance of the Cambodian government and garment companies in improving workplace conditions in the garment industry, specifically concerning fire safety, child labor as well as worker safety and health. The ILO also announced in September it plans to continue the practice of “naming and shaming” factories that violate the law.

Sarah Morrison

Sources: The New York Times, NPR, The Cambodia Daily: Garment Worker Clash, The Cambodia Daily: Protest, AlJazeera, AlJazeera America