Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has cut short a 15-day long religious festival after admitting on social media that he was negligent in allowing the festival this year, which resulted in outbreaks of COVID-19 centered on many of the country’s pagodas.
During the Pchum Ben festival, which runs from Sept. 22 and Oct. 6 this year, extended families visit pagodas to make offerings to Buddhist monks and pay respect to seven generations of their ancestors.
Cambodia canceled the festival in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Hun Sen previously said that this year festivals could continue. But after increases in daily infections and deaths, Hun Sen said he was wrong to ease restrictions.
“I was negligent after seeing a slight decrease in COVID-19 infections in allowing celebration of Pchum Ben and allowing people to go to pagodas and make offerings per our tradition,” said Hun Sen in an audio message posted on Facebook Sept. 25.
“In only three days, the infection rate near some pagodas rose, causing the number of daily infections to jump from around 400, 500 or 600 cases per day to over 800, and deaths rose to more than 20 per day,” he said.
“I would be in complete shock if people are still allowed to go to the pagodas today and transmit COVID-19 back their family members at home,” he said.
According to Cambodia’s National Ad-hoc Commission for COVID-19, the government has vaccinated nearly 13 million of the country’s population of more than 16 million, or about 81 percent—one of the highest percentages in Asia.
Of the 32.6 million doses the country has so far purchased or received from donations, more than 91 percent are from China.
Buddhist monks told RFA Monday that household members are permitted to bring food and offerings to pagodas for Pchum Ben, but public religious gatherings are restricted.
Each pagoda can accept food and offerings from the public through entrance gates, but the public cannot enter, according to the Venerable Khoeum Sorn, head of the secretariat of the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch Office.
“All Buddhist followers should please understand this measure. We all love our lives and our health. So, if you want to perform good merits, just send one person or two people to the pagoda,” he told RFA Monday.
“Buddhist monks will arrange tables at the entry gate of each pagoda for the public to leave their offerings. We cannot allow any long public gatherings during this Pchum Ben festival,” he said.
Other monks were concerned that the restrictions could result in food shortages in some of the country’s pagodas
The Venerable Yee Puthy, a monk at the Stung Meanchy Pagoda in Phnom Penh, said fewer than 20 or 30 people came to Stung Meanchy Pagoda to make offerings before the restrictions, but 277 monks and several more others live there.
“By not allowing the public to enter the pagoda and conduct rituals and turn over their offerings, some days we don’t have enough food,” Yee Puthy told RFA.
The abbot of the Prasat Kaukchork pagoda in the northwestern city of Siem Reap told RFA that he has had to spend money out of the pagoda’s savings to feed the 30 monks living at the pagoda because this year they received fewer donations, as the pagoda is located in a lockdown area.
RFA attempted to contact Seng Somony, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, but he was unavailable for comment.
The spokesman told local media Sunday that the Ministry of Health collected samples from 975 monks and students living in 150 of Phnom Penh’s 154 pagodas. The ministry found that 141 monks and students contracted COVID-19 in the first four days of Pchum Ben.
As of Monday, Cambodia has confirmed 109,087 COVID-19 cases and 2,243 deaths, according to statistics from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
Cambodia on Monday announced it will donate to neighboring Laos 200,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccines it purchased from China.
Or Vandin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, told the pro-government media outlet Fresh News the doses would be delivered Tuesday at the Trapaing Kirel international crossing at Stung Treng province on the border with Laos’ Champassak province.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Eugene Whong.