My Cambodian brother-in-Christ and our Tenth liaison in Cambodia, Makara Un, recently wrote to me about how the church in Cambodia is responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. Here is what he had to say:
"The coronavirus pandemic is a dangerous and disruptive force in Cambodia today. The Lord is not in a panic and He has not been taken by surprise. He has a way for us and our church not only to survive this crisis but to use this as an opportunity to grow in truth in a deeply troubled period of our history."
Whenever a church faces a new crisis, the Lord always has a way through with often surprising outcomes. For example, in 1994, after large-scale meetings with an American evangelist imploded, the Cambodian Church experienced persecution for the first time since religious freedom was granted in 1990. Some churches were razed, vandalized, and forced to shut down. Many potential leaders have been taught the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but it will take more than a generation for those implications to be worked out in a Cambodian context. There may be fewer than a dozen mature, tested, faithful Christian leaders, but the spirit will guide other young emerging leaders through trials and testing, making them pure as gold.
That is no surprise because this global pandemic is affecting every aspect of our lives. Schools are closed. Travel is severely limited. Some of us have to work from home, while some of us have lost our jobs. Events are being changed or cancelled. Church gatherings are banned for now, like they were in Cambodia in 1994. Cambodia today has a Christian community that is small, yet strong.
Many churches are responding with online services, sharing messages of encouragement and live worship services on social media. Many of us already knew the importance of leveraging technology to reach people—we just never realized how necessary it would become. During this time, look for opportunities to stay in touch. Nothing can replace face to face contact and human touch, but many of us today live in a very connected world. We can text, chat, email, talk on the phone, or make video calls.
Our people are likely feeling a financial pinch if they’re not currently working. Or they’re having to adjust to the new reality of remote working. They’re likely having to homeschool their kids. And they may be dealing with a shortage of certain essentials (like hand sanitizer and face masks). “I couldn’t afford to buy a face mask because it’s more expensive than my whole day's meals,” said the security guy I met at the bank. (The price of 2 face masks before the pandemic was 500 riels = $0.07, and now 1 mask = $1). The majority of small businesses and workers are unlikely to get any financial help from the government. Poverty rates will spike again, especially considering the difference for much of the population between “poverty” and “non-poverty” is less than $1 a day. Most small businesses will close. There are campaign efforts propositioning for the government to delay loan payments during the course of the pandemic as 80% of Cambodians are living in debt, but the government has not yet responded.
PHNOM PENH - Mr. Sovann Rithy, chief executive officer of digital media network TVFB, was arrested on Tuesday night after he quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s April 7 speech in a Facebook post. Rithy quoted Hun Sen as saying: “If a mototaxi TukTuk driver faces bankruptcy, they will have to sell their motorbikes or TukTuk to survive, as the government has no ability to help.” Mr. Rithy posted this quote on his personal Facebook page, but the National Police today claimed that Prime Ministry Hun Sen was only joking and that the quote was not supposed to be taken seriously.
As of March 26, the Cambodian human-rights NGO LICADHO had recorded 24 cases of Cambodian citizens being detained over “spreading fake news” since the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began. It’s restricted freedom of speech in Cambodia.
As Cambodians are heading back to their home towns because of losing their employment, some people are wondering how many will be travelling home with the virus. Authorities are in the process of locating and identifying the majority of about 15,000 migrant workers who fled back to Cambodia on Sunday, March 22nd, 2020 before Thailand closed its borders. “Because their jobs were suspended and they were also scared of the virus spread in Thailand, they returned back to Cambodia, but the problem is that when they all came at the same time like this, how could they monitor and check their health? They can’t even have all of them self-isolated for 14 days.” Authorities may lock down villages if more than two migrants test positive for COVID-19.
With all the shutdowns, border closures, Khmer New Year celebration cancellations, etc., our hopes and prayers are that the church will rise and speak hope into a nation that is in desperate need of hope and a future.
We are grateful for Makara and the vital work that he does. Let us continue to stand with him and the Cambodian church in prayer and faith as they deal with this pandemic one day at a time. Makara is Tenth's liaison in Cambodia, helping manage our 10 Cambodian partnerships.