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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Laws bad that make us good, say critics

Laws bad that make us good, say critics

So far in 2006 the government has banned mobile phone pornography, adultery, and

the 'Miss Cambodia' beauty pageant - all part of a legislative crusade to rescue

Cambodia from moral decline.

But in a society where brothels, beer girls, and bauk - gang rape - are still socially

acceptable forms of Friday night fun for many men, social analysts are wondering

whether this battery of new laws will curb Cambodia's social ills, and just why the

government is pursuing this particular path to moral regeneration.

"I don't think a law can address morality," said Mu Sochua, former Minister

of Women's Affairs and Sam Rainsy parliamentarian.

"Morality has to be addressed within a cultural context. We need to look at

the root cause of the issue: why are we in this situation as a society? The core

issue is that Cambodia's soul is totally tarnished."

Cambodian society is not in good shape, said Theary Seng, executive director of the

Center for Social Development (CSD).

"Cambodia is in moral decline," Seng said. "We have lost our identity,

our responsibility toward one another, our moral bearings. Corruption is rampant;

prostitution is rampant; adultery is rampant."

Negative social behaviors have become commonplace, said Seng.

"Adultery committed against a wife is pervasive and socially accepted in Cambodia,"

she said. "This results mainly from the power imbalance between a man and a


Leakhena Nou, professor of sociology at the California State University, Long Beach,

says the current state of Cambodian society owes much to deep-rooted gender inequalities

that underlie many of the visible social problems - prostitution, pornography, adultery

- that the government is currently trying to address through legislation.

"The value of women has no meaning in a society that uses its women as commodities

for profit," she said. "The message this sends as a norm for society is

that the co-modification of human life for profit at the cost of personal morality

and ethics is acceptable."

The government argues that Cambodia's moral decline is a recent phenomenon caused

primarily by the influx of Western cultural products - and it can be successfully

cured by legislative means, said CPP Parliamentarian Cheam Yeap.

"The spread of Western cultural products, for example pornography, has weakened

Cambodian morality," he said. "We conceived of this law in response to

a social need."

The new adultery law is an attempt to use legislation to bring about a return to

traditional Cambodian values, Yeap said.

"The adultery law adopted by the National Assembly sought to reflect the meaning

of a traditional Khmer saying - 'one wife, one husband,'" he said. "When

I was a child, society had a strong morality, but that has changed and it is our

role to fix that."

But others say the perceived overall decline in morality, and specifically the pervasive

adultery within Cambodia, are in reality manifestations of a far broader social malaise.

"Money and power have become our gods," said the CSD's Seng. "Children

roam the streets and numb themselves with glue; we do not respect our elders; we

cheat, steal and lie because we need to survive. Legislation can address many of

these issues, but what is needed above all else is education in ethics and religion."

Sochua said the National Assembly's decision on September 1 to criminalize adultery

is not the most effective means of addressing this particular social problem.

"The adultery law is a curative rather than a preventative measure," she


Social problems cannot be solved by legislation alone and the Cambodian population

is aware of this, Sochua said.

"People would support stronger measures that are more productive in terms of

mobilizing the entire country towards a cultural response," she said. "If

you want to ban anything properly, then ban it in a way that is punishable, efficient,

and manageable."

Poorly designed legislation which addresses only the symptom, not the cause of a

problem, will not help to improve the social fabric of Cambodia. Such laws are signals

of a government flailing for superficial solutions to major problems, Sochua said.

"You have a ban on 3G technology for 10 years - why ten? Why not two?"

she said. "They ban all the brothels so they turn into karaoke bars. It is really

poor management, poor government, with no clear, strong policy and no clear political


But if legislation alone cannot fix the social problems the government claims it

is trying to address, why then are legislative measures still the primary tool in

the government's purported moral crusade?

"This law was tailor-made for Prince Ranariddh," said opposition leader

Sam Rainsy of the law criminalizing adultery. "It is for all the princes who

pretend to be politicians - most prominent royals could go to jail."

There is suspicion among opposition lawmakers that the law is not seeking to save

Cambodia from moral decline, but is instead a political tool that will be used by

the government to attack its opponents.

"It will be used selectively and there are loopholes in place for the CPP,"

Rainsy said. "It is another repressive tool under the cover of morality, but

the most immoral people are those who invented it. It's Machiavellian."

The current political and judicial framework of Cambodia means the major risk of

the law being misused lies in the implementation process.

"I have no doubt that within the judicial system we have at the moment there

will be a bias in implementation," Sochua said. "If someone is from an

opposition party, he or she will definitely have a hard time getting away with adultery,

but if someone has an influence on the courts, they will probably be fine."

Civil society leaders agree that the law appears politically motivated.

"Practically, this law reeks of politics," Seng said. "It has the

potential to be wielded selectively by the powers-that-be to silence their critics."

The government maintains that the law will be applied fairly across the board, and

that its critics are simply fearful that their own wrongdoing will be exposed and


"People who have committed adultery are not in favor of this law; people who

are faithful to their wives are satisfied with this law," Yeap said. "But

everyone will have to respect it."



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