Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni left the country on Thursday for a medical checkup in China, a day after the country’s Senate approved a new law making it a crime to insult the monarch along with controversial changes to several articles of the constitution.
The constitutional changes and the strict lèse-majesté law were adopted by the lower house of parliament on Feb. 14, only 12 days after first being adopted by the Council of Ministers. The king, however, must sign the amendments and other legislation for them to become law.
Independent observers and civil society groups and have warned that the adoption of the lèse-majesté law and constitutional amendments put forth by top officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) could pose a serious threat to human rights and basic freedoms.
The lèse-majesté clause, one of two new articles included in an amendment to the Criminal Code, carries a one- to five-year jail term and a U.S. $500-$2,500 fine.
Rights groups have noted that a similar lèse-majesté law in neighboring Thailand, which metes out harsh jail sentences for those who insult or threaten members of the royal family past and present, has prompted complaints that the law has been misused against critics of the government.
Other changes to Cambodia’s domestic law include provisions that oppose interference in the country's internal affairs and legalize the removal of voting rights and the right to run as a candidate for political office for those deemed to have violated the interest of the state.
Changes to the Constitutional Council Law were passed to ensure compliance with the constitution, the interpretation of the charter and related statutes, and decisions by lawmakers in election-related disputes.
The changes are the latest move by the government of Cambodia’s long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen to clamp down on dissent and political challengers ahead of a general election in July.
The government has already targeted NGOs, independent media, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in a months-long crackdown to silence its critics.
In September, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested for alleged treason. Two months later, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP at the government’s request for what it said was the party’s involvement in plotting a “coup” against the administration. The decision banned 118 CNRP lawmakers and senior officials from politics for five years.
A timely departure?
Lao Mong Hay, an independent Cambodian political analyst and former law professor, said the king’s departure for China did not occur by chance, and that he likely saw the trip as an opportunity to leave the task of signing and promulgating the amendments into law to top CPP officials.
“His departure for China at this time is … in order to avoid signing those draft amendments adopted by the [two] assemblies and the Constitutional Council,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
A statement issued by the monarchy did not specify the king’s return date.
Lao Mong Hay called the laws “unjust” and said they could not be considered statutes because the institution that adopted them is illegitimate.
“[Cambodia’s] parliamentary institutions are already unconstitutional, meaning that such unconstitutional assemblies cannot make any amendments to the constitution,” he said. “Any statutes adopted cannot be deemed constitutional.”
Son Soubert, an advisor to former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, father of the current king, told RFA he could not assume that Norodom Sihamoni timed his trip so as to avoid signing the amendments into law.
Nevertheless, the king made a wise decision to leave so that the CPP would be responsible for their promulgation, he said.
Though Senate President Say Chhum can sign and enact laws as acting head of state whenever the king is absent, Norodom Sihamoni’s departure shows that the constitutional changes were created by and are recognized solely by the CPP, he said.
‘Provisions are incompatible’
On Tuesday, two United Nations human rights experts expressed concern that the constitutional changes would impose far-reaching limits on democracy ahead of the election and beyond and pose a serious risk of violations of human rights law.
“Lèse-majesté provisions are incompatible with Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights law, as they criminalize the legitimate exercise of freedom of speech,” said a joint statement issued by Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, and David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
“Moreover, a number of the proposed constitutional amendments use broad terminology and would need more precise language to meet international standards and avoid the risks to freedom of speech,” they said.
Smith and Kaye expressed particular concern about the proposed requirement that political parties and individuals must uphold the national interest and oppose interference from abroad.
Among the changes are also provisions leaving open the possibility that people’s right to vote can be suspended or withheld, they said.
“The right to political participation and freedom of expression are of particular importance during electoral processes, and the authorities have a responsibility to ensure that individuals, political parties, and the media can operate without being sanctioned,” they said.
Smith and Kaye also noted that organizations found guilty of violating the new lèse-majesté law could be closed down, placed under judicial supervision, or have their funds and property confiscated.
“We urge the government of Cambodia to carry out a rigorous and thorough reassessment of the draft amendments to ensure they comply with international human rights laws and standards,” the experts said.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.