Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs on Thursday defended Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent use of derogatory language in criticizing a female protester accused of injuring a security guard, saying he was only referring to her specifically, and not to the nation’s women in general.
In a statement posted on its Facebook account, the ministry said Hun Sen’s Aug. 3 use of the terms nhee—a female animal—and mee srey—a phrase expressing contempt at a young woman—was directed at the unnamed woman who allegedly kicked a security guard during a protest last year.
According to the statement, Hun Sen was “only referring to a single bad apple who no one in society supports,” due to her alleged actions, and “had no intention of using the comments to refer to all women.”
Addressing women as animals is considered harsh and inappropriate in Cambodian society.
The ministry expressed “strong admiration” for Hun Sen, who it said has done much to improve the situation for women in Cambodia, including the prevention of gender-based violence, as part of a bid to meet the country’s development goals.
The statement came in response to widespread condemnation from the public and civil society groups who criticized Hun Sen for setting a poor example as the leader of the country by using humiliating language against women.
On Monday, Hun Sen used the derogatory terms in calling for the arrest of the woman accused of injuring the guard during a July 15, 2014 protest in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park that led to clashes between opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters and security forces.
“Among the brutal … group was a woman who bounced around and kicked like a wrestler,” he said. “She was not a woman, but a mee srey or nhee kick fighter. It was too extreme, and it’s not a violation of women’s rights, but it’s too bad. The police have to continue working [on the case].”
Details about the incident Hun Sen was referring to were not available.
On Wednesday, more than 50 nongovernmental organizations issued a joint statement condemning Hun Sen’s comments, saying they not only humiliated a single woman, but the entire female population of Cambodia.
“We members of an NGO network advancing the respect of human rights and empowerment of women in Cambodia truly regret Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Aug. 3 use of the word nhee, as it refers to women as animals and tarnishes the honor and virtue of women throughout society,” the statement said.
“These comments also present a barrier to women from participating in every part of society, as such words can affect the thinking of the entire country, and such words do not set a good example for the youth to follow.”
The NGOs said that as a signatory to the United Nations’ Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), such language was inappropriate for describing women and should not be used by the government.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ros Sopheap—whose Gender and Development for Cambodia rights group was among the 50 NGOs which signed the joint statement—told the Phnom Penh Post that the woman should be punished by law, rather than by degrading language.
“Women are human beings like men are, so if anyone commits an offense, we should enforce the law,” she said.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), dismissed the joint statement Thursday, calling it “politically motivated,” and criticizing the NGOs for refusing to ever acknowledge the “good intentions” of the government or ruling party.
He echoed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs by saying Hun Sen’s disparaging comments were only directed at one woman and not her entire gender.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen is also a citizen of Cambodia, and he deserves the right to freedom of expression,” he added.
Hun Sen’s comments about women have drawn criticism in the past.
In 2009, opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who is also a former women’s affairs minister and prominent women’s rights defender, brought a defamation case against the prime minister for comments that included a reference to the unbuttoning of her blouse and another reference of a sexual nature.
But in 2010 she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and was herself convicted of defamation two years later, based on a countersuit by Hun Sen, although no evidence proving damage to reputation or malicious intent was presented in court.
The highly politicized case drew criticism from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which said it showed “an alarming erosion of both freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia.”
The OHCHR also noted that Hun Sen’s use of offensive language towards women had deserved a response from the courts.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.