A set of controversial laws and constitutional amendments was quietly signed by Senate President Say Chhum in place of the King last week, going into effect immediately despite the Justice Ministry previously claiming there would be a promulgation period.
The changes include a new lèse majesté law banning insults to the King and constitutional amendments restricting political participation. They have been roundly condemned by human rights advocates and the United Nations.
The vaguely worded amendment to Article 42 requires that political parties “prioritise national interest”, and also says that “Cambodian people can participate in collective groups that help each other and protect the national achievements and social order”.
The lèse majesté clause added to the Criminal Code, meanwhile, defines an insult as any “word, gesture, writing, picture or other media which affects the dignity of the individual”, and specifically only applies to the King himself as opposed to the entire royal family.
Institutions and media outlets are also accountable under the law, with different punishments including fines of 10 million ($2,500) to 50 million ($12,500) riel, the confiscation of property and the possibility of shutting down the organisation entirely.
King Norodom Sihamoni left for a doctor’s appointment in Beijing the day after the Senate approved the laws in February. Sihamoni has a habit of leaving the country, thereby deferring authority to acting head of state Say Chhum – a senior member of the Cambodian People’s Party – when controversial laws are due to be signed.
While the ratification of the laws was only announced by government mouthpiece Fresh News yesterday, the documents are dated February 27. In an interview yesterday, Justice Ministry spokesman Chhin Malin said they had gone into effect immediately.
However, Malin’s comments yesterday seemingly contradicted his statement last Wednesday – February 28 – when he implied the law had not yet been signed, and said it would come into effect in Phnom Penh 10 days after it was signed, and in the rest of the country 20 days after.
The initial comments were made in response to accusations that monk and frequent government critic But Buntenh was accused of violating the law by the litigious president of the Cambodian Youth Party, Pich Sros. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Buntenh had said that Cambodians, including the King, drank water contaminated by floating Vietnamese settlements.
Asked about the accusation at the time, Malin had said that “before the King signs it is still a draft law, and not valid for implementation”. If the law was signed into effect beforehand, however, it would have been “valid” at the time of the comments.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the situation was “confusing”.
He couldn’t say for sure whether the government had changed the dates of the document in order to prosecute Buntenh, but added that legality doesn’t matter to the government anyway. “It depends on the mood of the government,” he said.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said that no offending comments made before the law should be subject to prosecution, but noted that re-sharing old text or images would violate the law.
“For example, a picture insulting the king that was drawn a long time ago. The drawer did not make a mistake because he drew it before the law came. But those who take that picture and post it will have a problem,” he said.
Article 3 of the Penal Code states that only laws that were “in force when an offence is committed” may be prosecuted.
Nee, however, said the government plays by its own rules and purposefully sows confusion about how the legal process works.
He noted that it wasn’t uncommon for people to be brought up on charges for crimes committed years earlier.
In September, Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha was arrested in spite of his parliamentary immunity on charges of “treason” for comments made in a 2013 video in which he described receiving financial support from America. At the time, the government said the immunity had been circumvented because the crime was in flagrante delicto – or “red-handed” – as the video was still online.
“They just create more confusion in the public so we do not know the intention of the government,” he said, characterising it is a way to “exercise control”.
Malin did little to clear up the confusion yesterday, claiming the law could not be used to prosecute people for past comments, but added some very broad and vague exceptions. He said if a post remains online and causes “harm” or is done by an “organised group” with “ill-intentions” it may still apply.
Malin said those decisions would be left up to prosecutors, and declined to comment on Buntenh’s case specifically.
The Ministry of Cults and Religion, meanwhile, has said it will consider lodging a complaint against Buntenh. Seng Somony, spokesman for the ministry, said he believed the case would be discussed in today’s annual meeting, along with “other wrongdoings” the monk had committed. The response could include legal action, he said.
Buntenh did not reply to requests for comment.