Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (L) shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who bows, (R) during a ceremony marking Cambodia's Independence Day in Phnom Penh on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Chhin Tang Sothy
King Norodom Sihamoni shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who bows during a ceremony marking Independence Day in Phnom Penh on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP / Chhin Tang Sothy

Cambodia’s Council of Ministers approved plans on February 2 to introduce a lèse majesté law that would make it illegal to make disparaging comments against the monarchy, as well as a slew of other amendments that will inevitably curb free speech.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng has apparently approved the law, which will head to the National Assembly next week and will almost certainly be ratified. Proposed punishments for breaking the new law are thought to be a prison sentence of between one and five years, and a fine of about US$2,500. There is speculation, however, the fine could be as much as US$15,000.

“Passing and implementing a lèse majesté law in Cambodia will have one outcome, and one outcome only – increased repression of freedom of expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, a rights lobbying group.

The Council of Ministers also agreed to amend the country’s constitution, including the addition of an article that will require all political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first” and another that notes every Cambodian’s “obligation to…defend the motherland.”

Plans for introducing lèse majesté stem ostensibly from a recent lawsuit brought by Hun Sen against former Funcinpec party grandee Lu Lay Sreng.

A telephone call made by Lay Sreng in which he called King Norodom Sihamoni a “castrated chicken” for his silence during the government’s latest crackdown was leaked last October. He also alleged that Hun Sen is losing support within his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the call.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) congress in Phnom Penh, January 19, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring Photo

Lay Sreng fled to America in October, but last month was found guilty in absentia of defaming Hun Sen and ordered to pay US$125,000 in damages. At the time, Hun Sen is thought to have also wanted to prosecute Lay Sreng for insulting the king, but couldn’t because there is no exact law barring royal slight.

This was contradicted somewhat by a government spokesman who said the proposed lèse majesté law is designed to bring the country’s Penal Code in line with the constitution. Article 7 of the Cambodian constitution stipulates that “the person of the king shall be inviolable,” while Article 18 states that “royal messages shall not be subjected to discussion by the National Assembly.”

“Inviolable” is an ambiguous term, obviously, but generally has not been considered to mean that disparaging the monarch was unconstitutional. The late King Norodom Sihanouk, who invariably gave up his royal position to play an integral role in politics from the 1950s onwards, resisted introducing any form of lèse majesté throughout his reign.

Existing provisions in the Penal Code have, however, been used to punish those judged to have insulted the king. In October 2012, for example, a Chinese national and manager of a garment factory was deported after destroying a photograph of Sihanouk.

Days later, another Chinese garment factory chief was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for crumpling a photograph that bore the resemblance of Sihanouk.

Cambodia’s then King Norodom Sihanouk (R) greets Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) on April 6, 2011. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

According to police, the individuals were charged under Article 410 of the Penal Code, which rules against “intentionally destroying, defacing or damaging property belonging to another person.”

Cambodia’s Penal Code also already has draconian rules on the defamation of public figures and officials, which, when alleged by senior figures, are habitually enforced by the courts.

“Why resort to lèse-majesté when you can have anyone arrested for any reason?” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, told Asia Times.

Many analysts think the government’s latest criminal amendments, including lèse majesté, are simply designed to provide itself with additional means to further its crackdown on dissent and free speech – and not necessarily to protect the monarchy.

King Sihamoni himself has never bid to sue for defamation and, by all accounts, is supportive of free speech. He has made no public comments about the new proposed law.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R) during the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

There are also concerns in the current repressive political climate that lèse majesté could be wielded by the Hun Sen government similar to how royal defamation is enforced in Thailand by both elected and coup-installed regimes.

Lèse majesté was first introduced in Thailand in the early 20th century, but has been habitually and strictly enforced since the military coup of mid-2014.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University, Thailand, thinks that lèse majesté could be wielded by the Cambodian government as a way of censoring individuals who criticize it by arguing that insulting the state is tantamount to insulting the King.

“An enacted lèse majesté law in Cambodia is all about helping Hun Sen, not King Sihamoni,” Chambers opined. The Lay Sreng case is an illustration of how Hun Sen is willing to use alleged defamation of the monarch for his own political ends.

It represents an ironic turn. In 2005, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the monarchy unless King Sihamoni signed a controversial border treaty with Vietnam.

“If it is hard to get the signature this time, we must review; should we keep the monarchy or form a republic?” Hun Sen apparently told the king by telephone, a story he relayed to the public during a speech on state-controlled TV.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks to Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R) during a meeting at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on December 14, 2016. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Some analysts believe that the power of the monarchy has been severely curtailed by Hun Sen’s government over the last two decades. “I think we can use the words ‘puppet king.’ His power has been reduced to nothing,” Son Chhay, a politician from the now-dissolved CNRP, reportedly told the media back in 2011.

Like Thailand, Cambodia’s official motto is “Nation, Religion, King.” There is a widely-held belief that the king is the symbolic representation of the nation.

In December 2016, an image circulated on Facebook of the king’s face photo-shopped onto a gay pornographic image. The government subsequently launched an investigation into who produced the image.

“The King represents the whole nation and they are insulting the king, which is like they are insulting the whole nation,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak commented at the time.

The concern now is that the reverse might also be upheld: insulting the nation is akin to insulting the king. There are no indications yet on whether the lèse majesté law would apply retrospectively.

Nor is it immediately clear if the proposed lèse majesté law will cover the high number of Cambodian royals now active in politics. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the half-brother of King Sihamoni, is the president of Funcinpec, a royalist political party.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh gestures during an interview at his home in central Phnom Penh, October 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Despite only winning less than 4% of the vote in 2013, Funcinpec was handed 44 of the CNRP’s 55 seats in parliament after the latter’s dissolution in November.

Funcinpec, which has said it doesn’t want to be seen as an “opposition party,” will compete in July’s general election. So, if lèse majesté is introduced before then, would it be illegal for media to criticize Ranariddh’s comments and actions?

Perhaps the greatest fear, though, is that the wording of the proposed lèse majesté law might be so broad that it doesn’t just protect the monarch from defamatory comments but also laypeople that hold royal honorific titles.

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said that the law is motivated by “the rise of attackers affecting our entire monarchy,” posing questions over who the courts will consider part of the “entire” royal family. He said in a Facebook post on Friday that the new law is designed to “uphold and to protect the reputation and royal name.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen on the 64th anniversary of the country’s independence from France, in Phnom Penh, November 9, 2017. Reuters/Samrang Pring

There are now at least seven non-royals who have been bestowed the royal honorific “samdech,” which translates roughly to “The Greatest” or “Lord.” They include Hun Sen, his wife Bun Rany, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Defense Minister Tea Banh and Senate President Say Chhum.

“Where commoners hold royal honorifics, it might become forbidden to criticize them or else, as in Thailand, violators of the law could be sent to prison for up to 15 years per offense,” said Chambers. Thailand’s lèse majesté law only shields the king, queen, heir apparent and regent, and not minor royals or royal advisors.

Another royally-bestowed honorific “oknha,” which is often translated as “tycoon,” has now been given to more than 700 individuals in Cambodia, chiefly among the business elite. In the past, this was a rare title of nobility that was seldom handed out by kings.

But a 1994 sub-decree revived the honorific, bestowing it on people who donated US$100,000 to the state, though many analysts believe that the money simply went into the ruling party’s coffers.  Last year, the government reportedly increased the minimum donation for the title to US$500,000.

“It’s overkill, really, unless you think that by virtue of the royal honorific you have become of royal blood. Peerage doesn’t work that way,” said Sophal Ear.

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