King Norodom Sihamoni will once again be out of Cambodia on the day that widely condemned new laws are due to be signed into force, prompting some observers to suggest he is abstaining from affixing his signature to politically questionable legislation.
The amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which aim to further sideline former opposition leader Sam Rainsy from Cambodia’s political arena ahead of national elections in July 2018, will be sent to the Constitutional Council on Tuesday.
It is the second time in a matter of months that the law has been altered for ostensibly political gain and – just as was the case in March – King Sihamoni will be in China for a health checkup at the moment when he is due to sign off on the changes. When the King is absent, that role falls to the acting head of state – Cambodian People’s Party stalwart and Senate President Say Chhum.
The King and the Queen Mother departed yesterday for Beijing. And while the monarch’s medical checks are usually in six-month intervals, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent royal member of the opposition, said the China trip had been planned since before the June 4 commune elections – before changes to the law had even been discussed.
“I cannot say whether it’s another coincidence as this trip was also planned a long time ago,” he said.
Yet as a member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – which under the new changes will no longer be able to “conspire” with Rainsy, their founding president, and will be forced to replace all signage bearing his image – Prince Thomico said his party was glad the King would not be the one signing the amendments into law.
“The CNRP sees the King as neutral so having the King out of the country saves his status . . . as a neutral institution not involved in political conflicts,” he said. “It is good for him not to be seen as being ‘under influence’.”
Political analyst Cham Bunthet said it was not possible to know if the King had left the country to avoid signing the law, but noted a pattern developing when it came to controversial laws and the King’s absence.
“I think that’s the silent resistance . . . I think it’s good for him to avoid those [changes],” Bunthet said. “I don’t think our King has enough power to do more than just stay silent and turn his back.”
While Sihamoni has taken a notably hands-off approach to politics, especially compared to his father, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Bunthet said he hoped the King could still serve as a mediator to encourage political leaders to “stop throwing dirty, hot and dangerous messages to one another”.
Social researcher Meas Ny noted that the King’s trips were only a few months apart, which could lend credence to the theory of strategic absences from the country. “If the King leaves because of this pressure [to sign the controversial law], it also can help the King not to receive criticism from the public,” Ny said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said while Sihanouk had used trips abroad to make political statements, “Sihamoni, on the other hand, has usually acquiesced to the signing of controversial laws”.
“Unlike his father, Sihamoni has never craved a political life, nor taken many openly political stances vis-a-vis Hun Sen’s government,” he said in a message.
“He does spend a decent amount of time outside the country, so it’s possible that these absences are coincidental; it’s also possible that this is his way of signaling his displeasure at the new legislation without openly challenging the CPP’s authority.”