The Senate yesterday passed controversial amendments to the Constitution and Penal Code despite an appeal from the United Nations to reconsider their impact on free speech and political participation.
The amendments include a ban on insulting the King, or lèse majesté law, which carries a punishment of one to five years in prison and a fine of 2 million riel to 10 million riel (about $500 to $2,500), and which the minister of justice yesterday noted for the first time would also apply to media outlets. Similar laws have been used in Thailand to curb free speech and crack down on political dissidents and journalists.
The laws will now be sent to head of state King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval. Sihamoni, however, has largely shied away from politics during his reign, and has recently made a habit of leaving the country when controversial and unpopular laws are passed, leaving them to be signed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party acting heads of state. Some observers have interpreted his absences as a sign of protest.
The King departed for China today in the company of Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk. High-ranking government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate president Say Chhumand National Assembly President Heng Samrin, saw the plane off at the airport. Oum Daravuth, an adviser to the Royal Palace cabinet, said the King would undergo a regularly scheduled medical visit and is expected back before the Khmer New Year in April.
Despite the amendments being roundly condemned by the United Nations and other rights groups, CPP Senator Chum Vong insisted yesterday that the new amendments “do not affect liberal multiparty democracy in Cambodia”. He suggested too much liberty had damaged society, and that the adjustments were “necessary” to ensure the “national interest”.
“In the past, we had a problem because we were thinking too much about freedom, which allowed [people] to say and raise whatever they wanted. It affected other people’s rights and the national interest, so it . . . became anarchy.”
Meanwhile, in response to questions from senators, Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana said the lèse majesté law will also apply to media outlets carrying purportedly insulting content. “It means journalists will be punished, but not only those individuals – their newspaper institution will also be punished . . . What we can do, we will do in order to eliminate insults to the king,” he said.
It was not clear if the prohibition would apply just to outlets that insulted the king themselves, or if it would also include those that quoted individuals deemed to have insulted the king, but Asean expert Dr Paul Chambers said that’s exactly what happens in Thailand. “Saying and or publishing such a quote would land you in prison for at least 15 years per the penalty of lese majeste in Thailand,” he said via email.
Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, agreed via email that there is a “real possibility that this law could extend to a wide range of actors beyond the maker of the alleged lese majeste statement”.
“In Thailand, there have been incidents where editors who published alleged lese majeste statements in magazines and persons who shared alleged lese majeste content on social media have found themselves in legal jeopardy,” he added.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin could not be reached for clarification.
Constitutional amendments must be passed with a two-thirds majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate. They were approved unanimously in the assembly, where little opposition remains following the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The 11 senators from the Candlelight Party, the remnants of the former Sam Rainsy Party and the only remaining vestige of the opposition CNRP in Cambodia, boycotted the vote. However, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds 46 seats in the 61-seat body, and the amendments easily passed yesterday morning with 45 votes.
Among the constitutional amendments is a requirement that political parties “place the country and nation’s interests first”. Similar requirements are imposed on individuals. The amendments also ban “foreign interference” and give the government the ability to revoke the right to vote.
The language mirrors that used by government officials before and since the dissolution of the CNRP, which was accused of colluding with foreign powers to foment “revolution”, and later blamed for undermining Cambodia from abroad.
The amendments’ passage yesterday was met with fresh condemnation from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights and more than 60 other organisations. A joint statement warns that the “vague” amendments will have “grave implications” for Cambodia and urges that they be rejected.
“These amendments would provide yet more legal weaponry to a government that appears determined to eliminate all forms of peaceful dissent,” the statement says.
Further abuse of Cambodia’s institutions in the run-up to the 2018 elections is expected, according to the US Director of National Intelligence.
“Cambodian leader Hun Sen will repress democratic institutions and civil society, manipulate government and judicial institutions, and use patronage and political violence to guarantee his rule beyond the 2018 national election,” it said in a recent report.