Prime Minister Hun Sen said that two former opposition activists – Hun Kosal and Yim Sinan – were arrested for incitement because the messages and photos they posted on social media “distorted information” regarding King Norodom Sihamoni and “damaged the government’s honour”.

Hun Sen was speaking at a graduation ceremony for more than 4,000 Vanda Institute students on March 22, following the arrest of Kosal and Sinan the previous day.

The duo had made posts on Facebook with photos of the King from the torch lighting ceremony before the torch relay race for the 32nd SEA Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games, held in Siem Reap province. They allegedly cited the posture of Hun Sen and other ministers in the photos as an act of disrespect to the King.

On March 21, Kosal posted a message to his personal Facebook account, saying: “I saw they were abusing and insulting the King in many ways. I, as a next generation politician, am determined to use all my abilities to join forces with president Kem Sokha to protect the King and the throne that is indispensable to the Cambodian people.”

“According to the voices of the people we heard today, we can now clearly see who is the real king of our motherland,” Sinan wrote on his personal Facebook account, apparently referring to Hun Sen.

The premier said the two were brought in for questioning because their posts and photos implied that the government had insulted the King, which is a crime in Cambodia.

“With photos of His Majesty and Chea Sophara, [Kosal] mentioned that there was an insult to the King. In what way?” he said, referring to the minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

“[Sinan] said that today people at coffee shops said it was clear who the real king is’. We cannot tolerate that,” he said.

Hun Sen said he could not exempt them from prosecution in this case, noting that one of the two men, Sinan, was close to former opposition leader Kem Sokha and that Sinan had already been pardoned once.

He said that he had not broken the lese-majeste law as their posts seemed to allege and they were distorting the truth by using the messages and photos.

He said it was not freedom of expression, but intentional slander that is destructive to society and insulting to the King and government leader.

“What I’m saying is merely an explanation of the reasons behind the arrest of the two young men. It is not a message to the courts as to whether to charge them or not,” he said.

Ou Chanrath, co-founder of the Cambodia Reform Party (CRP), said the authorities should have issued a warning to the pair first, saying it was not a serious breach of any law.

Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said that based on what Sinan and Kosal posted, it was an insult to the King because that amounted to disseminating “false” information, and that it was an incitement to imply that the government or its leaders were insulting the King.

“We leave it up to the court to determine and decide whether the offences merit charges and convictions. The court will proceed based on facts and the laws in force,” he said.

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Chapter II of the Constitution explicitly stipulates that no one can insult the King.

He said the pair had misled the public with provocative messages and smeared the prime minister by saying he had insulted the King.

“Freedom of expression must be in accordance with the laws of Cambodia, both the Constitution and other laws. We cannot let freedom become anarchy in society and lead to social chaos.

“Cambodian society is different from the West. Generally, they are more informed about how to verify information, whereas in Cambodia, some people are not really able to verify if the information they receive are true or false and are therefore easily led astray to believe them.

“Once we post messages implying that the prime minister is equal to the King, in that sense, it could leads to social chaos,” he said.