Unpacking the dangers of Cambodia’s proposed lèse majesté law
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Unpacking the dangers of Cambodia’s proposed lèse majesté law

THE Cambodian government on Friday approved a legal amendment that will see insults to the monarchy punishable by up to five years in prison.

The new lèse majesté law will head to the National Assembly this week, where it will almost certainly be ratified given the ruling party’s dominance.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said offenders could receive a fine of more than US$15,000 in total, adding that the amendment was made in response to “the rise of attackers affecting our entire monarchy.”

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The crematorium site for Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk is seen at dusk in Phnom Penh, on Feb. 4, 2013. Source: AP

The new rules are already drawing comparisons with neighbouring Thailand, which has some of the world’s strictest lèse majesté laws, with sentences of up to 15 years for each offence of royal insult.

Supporters of the amendment are saying it will “uphold and protect the reputation and royal name”.

Critics are calling it the latest tactic in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mounting crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.

Before it even comes into force, here are just some of the dangers of the proposed law:

Designed to ‘scare’ the public

Making little attempt to conceal the government’s reasons for the new law, Cambodia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Monday it was designed to “scare” the public.

Talking to Channel News Asia, Khieu Sopheak said: “Every human being is scared of the prison … we created the law to make people scared.”

SEE ALSO: Those who don’t understand ‘necessity’ of lèse majesté law lack ‘civilization’, ‘sensitivity’ – Thai Justice Minister

Another spokesman, Chin Malin, believes Cambodians must exercise freedom of expression responsibly and without the law, it would be “anarchy.”

“In the context of the freedom of expression without responsibility and such anarchy, it demands there be a regulation to prevent and punish, in order to protect the dignity and the fame of the king,” he said.

Who is included in the ‘entire monarchy’?

Phay Siphan’s assessment that the law was necessary due to attacks on the “entire monarchy” raises questions over who exactly will be considered part of the royal family.

Unlike in Thailand, where the lèse majesté laws only cover the king and his immediate family – the queen, heir apparent and regent – it is unclear if Cambodia’s new law will also shield laypeople who have been bestowed with royal honours.

The royally-bestowed honorific “oknha,” once a rarely awarded title, has now been handed out to over 700 individuals, chiefly among the business elite. Roughly translated as “tycoon,” the title had a resurgence after a 1994 sub-decree allowed it to be granted to people who donated US$100,000 to the state. This minimum donation was increased to US$500,000 as of last year.

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Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany hold a ceremony at the Angkor Wat temple to pray for peace and stability in Cambodia, on Dec 2, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

More selective but potentially more dangerous, the royal honorific “samdech” has been bestowed on at least seven non-royals. These recipients include Hun Sen, along with his wife Bun Rany, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Defence Minister Tea Banh and Senate President Say Chhum.

This understandably has rights groups concerned the law will be used against those who criticise these key members of the ruling Cambodia’s People Party (CPP), as well as the high number of Cambodian royals now in active politics.

In a statement on Monday, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairman Charles Santiago said:

“The inclusion of lèse majesté as a crime in Cambodian law is extremely worrying.”

“We’ve seen how this type of statute has been abused in neighbouring Thailand for years, and particularly given Cambodia’s weak rule of law and consistent misuse of other statutes, we see even more serious potential for its abuse in Cambodia.”

King is country and country is king

Back in 2016, when a photo of the King’s face was superimposed onto a gay pornographic image, Khieu Sopheak commented that: “The King represents the whole nation and they are insulting the king, which is like they are insulting the whole nation.”

There are now concerns that the reverse may be applicable under the new law. If criticising the nation can be classified as insulting the King, any negative assessment of the government could potentially carry a sentence.

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Kem Sokha’s supporters stand outside the Appeal Court during his bail hearing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Sept 26, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Friday’s approval did not only include the introduction of lèse majesté rules, but also a change to the country’s constitution. According to Asia Times, an additional article has been agreed 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.”

Tool for control

The consensus from rights groups is that the new law is the latest tool to be wielded by Hun Sen’s government in the lead up to this year’s election.

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

SEE ALSO: Cambodia: Call from MPs around the world to free Kem Sokha

The civil and political rights environment in Cambodia markedly deteriorated under Hun Sen’s rule last year. The leading political opposition party was dissolved and its leader, Kem Sokha, jailed. And a crackdown on the press and freedom of expression resulted in prominent independent media outlets being shuttered and rights activists arrested.

Kingsley Abbott, International Court of Justice’s Senior International Legal Adviser, voiced concern of the use of the law, especially given “the lack of independent and impartial judges” in the country able to provide “checks and balances on its power.”

“The Cabinet’s approval of a lèse majesté law appears to be a further attempt by the government to weaponise the country’s legislation against its perceived opponents.”