Bar girls in Phnom Penh could be affected by the proposed law change. Photo: YouTube

The Cambodian government doesn’t just want to control what its citizens say and think; now it wants to control what they wear. On April 28, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts launched a new department, the Disciplinary and Accolade Council, which will monitor social media for images of women who, it deems, are dressed too sexily.

Heading up this new puritanical council is Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona, the front woman of the campaign. But clearly, the initiative is being led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

On February 17, he instructed the government’s Cambodian National Council for Women to track down online vendors and “order them to stop live-streaming until they change to proper clothes.” Dressing provocatively to sell clothes, he claimed, apparently not understanding decades of advertising, “is a violation of our culture and tradition.”

For the prime minister, it’s the job of this already draconian government to “educate” women about what they should wear.

Days later – as the coronavirus pandemic was raging and Phnom Penh was doing nothing to prevent it, except showing its allegiance to Beijing – police arrested a woman (whom I don’t think should be named) for apparently dressing too sexily in photos on social media, when trying to sell her clothing products online.

She was “educated” by the police and then charged under the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation – so, in effect, for producing pornography – and convicted to six months in prison. 

“These charges rest on the abusive misapplication of a law which was supposedly intended to combat human trafficking, but instead is being used to oppress women,” Amnesty International’s regional director, Nicholas Bequelin, said in a statement at the time.

“Samdech Techo Prime Minister,” began a post on Hun Sen’s Facebook page, where he – as usual, referring to himself in the third person – “also warned of measure against some online product sellers who dress extremely sexy and do live sale promotion of their products via social media, which has an effect on the values, morality, and honor of our Cambodian women.”

Quite rightly, human-rights groups, especially women’s rights groups, are appalled. Hun Sen did little to placate them when, after their complaints, he replied during a graduation ceremony for students that his critics should have their own wives or daughters dress sexily. “Please have your wife [pose] nude or wear sexy [clothes], and we will help broadcast. I am willing to pay and have the posters posted on trees. Do you dare?” he said.

It’s an interesting line of argument for this government, which certainly doesn’t have a squeaky-clean image when it comes to vice. In 1999, actress Piseth Pelika was shot dead in Phnom Penh, after which a French newspaper, L’Express, published extracts from her diary that claimed she was the mistress of Hun Sen.

The publication also alleged that Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, ordered the killing, which Bun Rany denied and said she would sue for defamation over – which she never did, despite the ruling family’s penchant for litigation.

More recently, in 2018, we were greeted to leaked Facebook messages involving Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many – a ruling-party lawmaker and the leader of the party’s youth movement, the Union Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC) – who was accused of biting women at a gathering. The leaks included photos of their bruising. Sin Sakada, an actress and Hun Many’s employee, claimed he only “playfully bit” people.

Perhaps better, if the prime minister wants to protect the dignity of Cambodian women, he instead uses his energy to address the issue of Chbap Srey, the traditional code that ranks women lower than men. Or, perhaps, if his government does more to stop the illegal trafficking of women.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report in 2019 downgraded Cambodia from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List, one step above the lowest rank of Tier 3, and noted: “Against a backdrop of insufficient government oversight … authorities did not investigate credible reports of official complicity with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands … to human trafficking.”

One wonders if the government’s puritanical council will go further than a few photos on social media. Will it close down Phnom Penh’s numerous “girly bars” or its karaoke-cum-brothel “KTVs”? And what about the numerous nightclubs, famed for their supply of drugs and prostitution, that are owned by friends of the ruling party?

But asking for more puritanism is the wrong question. Many people are better placed to talk about the gender issue of this topic, but with the knowledge of being offensive to some, I would warn against this being framed as only a gender issue. It’s also a political issue. Indeed, all this comes as the government is using coronavirus crisis to crack down even more on free speech and free thinking.

The social contract of authoritarian states like Cambodia rests on the government’s promise that if the people give up their autonomy and interest in politics, the government will take care of their security and well-being. Now, the Cambodian government wants people to give up their opinion on morality, and hand over this power to the state.

As such, authoritarianism is the urge of the state to treat its citizens like children. Authoritarianism, indeed, is infantilism. Not only will the state, authoritarians say, protect the people from harmful or offensive ideas and thoughts; it will also protect people from controversial images.

Hun Sen claims he’s doing it to protect Cambodia’s reputation. But, one wonders, what is more scurrilous to Cambodia’s image? Is it a few women dressed scantily in photos on social media, trying to earn a few dollars?

Or it is more scurrilous that his ruling party has now made Cambodia a one-party state; that Cambodia is now spoken of as a mere province of China; that Cambodia was ranked second to bottom, only beating Venezuela, on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index two years running; that Cambodia is ranked the 16th worst country for money-laundering on the latest Basel AMI index?

I could go on. This government intends to.   

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a contributor to Asia Times, including the regular column Free Thoughts.