Cambodia has canceled this year’s Water Festival due to the Covid-19 pandemic, upsetting expectations the country will reopen within weeks after its rapid rollout of vaccinations.
Despite the cancellation, Interior Minister Sar Kheng praised the government’s control of the disease and encouraged people to strictly follow the preventive measures and “to learn to live the new normal.”
In his speech at a ceremony in Battambang Province, he said the cancellation of the festival and the annual boat races was aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly disease.
The festival was due to be held from Nov. 18-20 and is traditionally a time when villagers travel to the capital for the annual boat races and lunar Mid-Autumn Festival.
It is the equivalent of Thailand’s Loy Krathong.
In previous years, more than a million people crammed onto Phnom Penh’s riverfront to witness the spectacle, which is usually attended by the monarch.
However, the festival was marred in 2010 when a stampede resulted in a crush on a bridge that left 347 people, mostly youths, dead and another 755 injured.
Since then the government has encouraged more boat races in the provinces and attempted to limit the numbers in the capital. Cancellations have not been uncommon and the festival was not held last year due to Covid-19.
One observer said Cambodians would be disappointed with the decision amid expectations the government would lift restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic after fully vaccinating more than 70 percent of the population. At least 80 percent have received their first jab.
“The economy has been crushed by the pandemic,” he said, declining to give his name.
“People, and in particular the tourism industry, are receiving too many mixed signals. I can see how staging the Water Festival could be problematic from a health perspective, but the cancellation is just another blow after being told that Cambodia could reopen soon if case numbers remain low.”
Cambodia has confirmed 115,335 cases of Covid-19 with 108,802 recoveries and 2,544 deaths.
Daily caseloads have also fallen from more than 800 to around 200, but the number has been skewered by a sharp reduction in rapid testing since the pandemic’s second peak last month.
Last week Prime Minister Hun Sen said — as the annual Pchum Ben Festival drew to a close — that Cambodia would totally reopen on all fronts in two weeks if daily Covid-19 case numbers remained at current levels.
“This is our great test, to reopen the country in all areas,” Hun Sen said, adding that Cambodians would still have to get used to the “new normal.”
This story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.