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

Like the coward who tries impressing the bully by arriving late to a fight to deliver several kicks to an already grounded victim, many of Cambodia’s minor political parties have now laid into exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy for his comments made last month about Cambodia’s “puppet king.”

Cambodian Youth Party president Pich Sros called Sam Rainsy’s comments “deranged.” The royalist FUNCINPEC, naturally, intoned that “serious insult and has seriously damaged the reputation of the King of the Kingdom of Cambodia who is highly respected by the people.” 

Most of these naturally came only after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979 and which holds every seat in the National Assembly, had already strongly rebuked Sam Rainsy for his comments and in late December charged him with lèse-majesté, again. In September 2019, he was sentenced in absentia to an eight-year prison stretch for insulting the king, adding to his numerous other politically charged convictions.  

Sam Rainsy – the acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only viable opposition party, but which was forcibly dissolved in late 2017 for spurious charges of plotting a coup – last month wrote on social media: “All Khmer people know, like me, that the current king has never occupied himself with the state of the country and that he has never intervened to defend the common people who are victims of the flagrant injustices committed under the dictatorial regime of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen.”

He went on: “The current king lives quietly in his palace like a parrot in a golden cage, royally fed by Hun Sen using the nation’s budget, and showing no interest in the sufferings of his people.”

A little housekeeping first. In an article published on December 28, Radio Free Asia claimed that Sam Rainsy’s first offending post was one titled “Cambodia’s Covid-19 Vaccine Boondoggle,” which stated: “The way Hun Sen wants ordinary Cambodians to see it is that Cambodia has a ‘philanthropic party,’ not a ‘welfare state,’ so that if one takes away the CPP, the state collapses.”

This was a reference to the private donations the ruling party solicited from members of the public and the country’s tycoons to pay for Covid-19 vaccines. 

In fact, those were my words, published in my Diplomat column on December 14, which Sam Rainsy was clearly quoting from and linking to when he reposted them on December 20. Do note, I wrote nothing about King Norodom Sihamoni in that article. 

But Sam Rainsy employed them to critique the king for also donating money to the Covid-19 vaccine causes in his own video, posted afterward, in which he called Sihamoni a “puppet king.”

“Mr Hun Sen does not know that the Covid-19 vaccine is not available in retail and if you want to order in bulk from pharmaceutical companies and laboratories in the West that produce those vaccines, you have to deposit billions of dollars first,” he said. “Now Mr Hun Sen is silent about this and he is ready to pay back the philanthropists who were cheated by him, including the puppet King.”

However, Sam Rainsy possibly overlooked that King Sihamoni formally donated to the state coffers, whereas most other people donated money to the ruling party’s purse. Also, the formal head of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, who has been in detention since being arrested for treason in late 2017, also donated to the cause.  

In one way, Sam Rainsy is correct. Cambodia’s introduction of lèse-majesté in early 2018 should be derided for the political maneuver it was, and in the ideal world anyone should be allowed to pass comment on anyone else. “The King is a human being like us, not a deity descending from heaven. Everyone can be right or wrong,” he accurately stated. One ought always to be a fan of those who seek more free speech. 

Yet Sam Rainsy wasn’t really making a point about free speech. His argument was purely political, that, in his opinion, King Sihamoni should do more to stand up for the interests of his people against the policies of Hun Sen’s government.

More than that, in another post he seems to try drawing an analogy between Sihamoni and his father, the late Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s former king who in the 1950s gave up that post to become Cambodia’s civilian leader and then reverted to being king in the 1990s. There are several things to compliment Sihanouk on, but his single-minded domination of Cambodian politics isn’t one. 

For sure, the current monarch doesn’t comment on politics. A good thing, in my opinion, but maybe that is my bias as a Brit, where our monarch has a very long history of non-intervention in political matters.

Yet the witting Cambodian can ascertain the monarch’s political views in more subtle ways. Whenever a highly controversial law is passed by the National Assembly, King Sihamoni tends to find an excuse for a foreign visit or a health checkup abroad, meaning that the law is officially signed in by the Senate president, the acting head of state in the king’s absence. 

So isn’t it a good thing that Cambodia has a “puppet king” – or, in a better terminology, a monarch who does not interfere in politics and knows that his place is only as the symbolic head of state? Cambodia, after all, has been a constitutional monarchy since independence in 1953.

Would it be preferable, including to Sam Rainsy, if Cambodia’s monarchy were like that of neighboring Thailand, which has intervened and split politics for decades, so much so that the entire political mess Thailand has found itself in (after innumerable coups and constitutional changes) can, albeit simplistically, be laid at the feet of a political system that never truly adapted to the fall of an absolute monarchy and the creation of a constitutional monarchy in 1932?

Would one wish Cambodia to have a monarch like the current Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who now seemingly is trying to inch the country back toward an absolute monarchy? 

Pretty much the only positive development of Cambodian politics of the past decade is that the monarch hasn’t interfered in politics. Imagine the crisis Cambodia would be in now if it not only had the CPP intent on solidifying a one-party state and oppositional politics that has now (wrongly, I argue) become synonymous with the CNRP, but also an interventionist king. 

Be careful what you wish for, as well. If Sam Rainsy reckons that the CNRP has a chance of, first, returning from exile and, then, winning power, he would certainly not want his government to have to battle against an intervening monarch. 

There are innumerable problems in Cambodian politics. Fortunately, the king isn’t one. 

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 regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.