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,
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."