Government looks to make controversial amendments to Constitution

Sar Kheng outlines proposed amendments to the Constitution in December. Fresh News
Sar Kheng outlines proposed amendments to the Constitution in December. Fresh News

Government looks to make controversial amendments to Constitution

The Council of Ministers is planning to meet later this week to discuss amendments to the Constitution, including changes to an article guaranteeing the right for citizens to form organisations and political parties.

The document, a letter of invitation to local media, outlines an agenda for the meeting, to be held under the supervision of Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday. It also lists the items up for amendment, which include articles 34, 42, 49, 53 and 118, but does not give information as to what changes would be proposed.

The planned amendments were confirmed by Secretary of State Sak Setha, a member of a working group headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng to amend the Constitution.

An amendment to Article 42, which covers freedom of association, and includes the right to form political parties, would specify that a “political party must place the country and nation’s interests first”, Setha said. He declined to clarify how that would implemented in practice, saying only that it is not right for a Cambodian organisation to serve foreigners.

For months, the government has been pushing the narrative of an alleged conspiracy led by foreign interests as it engages in a political crackdown on the opposition, civil society and some media outlets.

In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s only viable opposition party – over such allegations, claiming that it had tried to overthrow the government with United States assistance. Former opposition head Kem Sokha is currently awaiting trial in a Tbong Khmum prison for his own alleged role in the supposed conspiracy.

The next month, Interior Minister Kheng said he would introduce an amendment banning citizens from doing “anything to impact the national interests” – while singling out opposition figure Kem Monovithya, Sokha’s daughter, for her appeals to the international community to impose sanctions on Cambodia over its democratic backslide.

Such a measure could come in the form of an amendment to Article 49, which says “every Khmer citizen shall respect the Constitution” and has an “obligation to . . . defend the motherland”. Another up for discussion, Article 53, enshrines “a policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment”, with Setha claiming a change would clarify that Cambodia “opposes any foreign interference in its internal affairs”.

Article 118 deals with the composition of the Council of Ministers, which the government has suggested streamlining. In its current form, Article 34 gives all Cambodian citizens the right to vote and to stand as candidates in an election, within certain age restrictions.

Setha yesterday would only say the proposed changes would bring the article in line with existing election laws, without explaining why it needed to be amended.

Kheng, meanwhile, has previously mentioned introducing a lèse majesté article restricting criticism of King Norodom Sihamoni, though none of the articles slated for amendment readily suggest such an addition.

Human rights advocates yesterday urged the Cambodian government to work with civil society representatives before making broad changes to the Constitution.

Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy for human rights group Licadho, said Article 42 is a “cornerstone of any democratic society”.

She urged legislative bodies to refrain from making changes to the article until citizens themselves could have input.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said diplomats should be “raising the alarm now”.

“For the Cambodian government to start amending rights guarantees in the Constitution in secret, without any wider consultation with civil society, raises profound concerns that ruling figures are aiming at creating permanent changes that destroy democracy,” he said via email.

Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda

A previous version of this article said that the proposed constitutional changes would be approved by the Constitutional Council. They will in fact go to the Council of Ministers.

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