Cambodian Court Charges Acting Opposition Chief Sam Rainsy Under Lèse-majesté Law

He had called the king a ‘puppet’ for helping cover up Hun Sen’s failed response to the coronavirus.
2020-12-28
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Cambodian Court Charges Acting Opposition Chief Sam Rainsy Under Lèse-majesté Law In a screen grab of a video, Sam Rainsy speaks to supporters from his home in Paris, France, Nov. 4, 2019.
Sam Rainsy's Facebook page

A court in Cambodia on Monday charged acting opposition leader Sam Rainsy under the country’s Lèse-majesté law after he called King Norodom Sihamoni a “puppet” for helping to cover up shortcomings in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Minister Keut Rith issued an injunction on Dec. 25 requesting that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court take “strong measures” against acting Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy for two Facebook posts last week. Court deputy prosecutor Seng Hieng followed up Monday, formally charging the opposition leader, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris.

The first of the offending posts, titled “Cambodia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Boondoggle” and published on Dec. 20, noted that Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have set about collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations from “tycoons and the business elite,” as well as Sihamoni, to pay for vaccinations.

“The way Hun Sen wants ordinary Cambodians to see it is that Cambodia has a ‘philanthropic party,’ not a ‘welfare state,’ so that if one takes away the CPP, the state collapses,” he wrote, noting that the government regularly tells the public that projects built with foreign aid were provided by the ruling party.

“Come any serious event, the ruling party usually puts on its Janus face: It pleads poverty to foreigners and boasts of its wealth to Cambodians. The message is easily understood: It wants pity and money from foreigners, and fear and respect from locals. And the two are related: It is the money from foreigners that means the CPP can lie about its wealth and prestige.”

However, Sam Rainsy said, the current situation with the coronavirus is different, and “only the credulous believe” that private donations from Cambodia’s elite will be enough to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for more than a tiny percentage of the population.

“Wealthy tycoons, many of whom have earned their money from stealing land and paying workers terrible wages, have been presented as the heroes, racing to the rescue,” he wrote.

“In reality it will be the hard-earned tax money of the Cambodian people that funds the solution, but the provision of COVID-19 vaccines will be done in such a way as to present them as a gift of Hun Sen, the CPP, and its meshed network of wealthy benefactors.”

Sam Rainsy said that Hun Sen had been obliged to announce plans to “repay the generous donors who have been cheated in this affair, including the puppet king,” after the opposition called out his actions.

A follow-up post on Dec. 25 that included a photo of Sam Rainsy and his wife with the late King Norodom Sihanouk and his wife, King Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, Sihamoni’s parents, carried a caption that read, “We only love and respect a dignified King who cares about his country and his people.”

‘A parrot in a golden cage’

That same day, after the injunction against him was issued to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Sam Rainsy wrote on Facebook that Hun Sen had accused him of violating the Lèse-majesté law and directed Justice Minister Keut Rith to take legal action.

He said he has “the right to express my opinion that the current king is a puppet who does exactly what Hun Sen tells him.”

“All Khmer people know, like me, that the current king has never occupied himself with the state of the country and that he has never intervened to defend the common people who are victims of the flagrant injustices committed under the dictatorial regime of Hun Sen,” he said.

“The current king lives quietly in his palace like a parrot in a golden cage, royally fed by Hun Sen using the nation’s budget, and showing no interest in the sufferings of his people. Hun Sen uses the king like a shield to defend his regime with a fig-leaf of legitimacy—which is abhorrent to a patriotic, justice-loving people.”

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Sam Sok Kong, a lawyer representing CNRP leaders and activists, said Sam Rainsy had yet to request his assistance in defending him against the new charge.

Sam Rainsy has lived in self-imposed exile since late 2015, remaining outside of Cambodia to avoid what he has said are a string of political motivated charges and convictions.

Last week, Sam Rainsy was tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in absentia for “falsifying information” regarding the death of former National Police Commissioner-General Hok Lundy and “incitement” for calling on the public to default on microfinance loans amid the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The acting CNRP leader tried to return on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.

CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Two months later, the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.

The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

New Year wishes

Kem Sokha, who was released on bail but remains subject to judicial supervision, posted a message on Facebook Monday wishing Sihamoni well in the coming year and praying for his health and longevity. In the message, which seemed to contradict Sam Rainsy’s earlier comments, the CNRP chief did not request that the king intervene in Cambodia’s ongoing political stalemate.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan, when asked by RFA, dismissed the idea that Cambodia is embroiled in a political crisis that Hun Sen has sought to resolve through the courts. He said the cases against opposition leaders are under the jurisdiction of the country’s judicial authorities, who are “beyond the government’s oversight.”

“This group is the one that exerts political influence on the court and, in turn, accuses the ruling CPP or the government,” he said. “They have to resolve their cases at the court. This is not a [political] crisis.”

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court is preparing for hearings set for Tuesday in the cases of Sam Rainsy and 19 other CNRP members charged with organizing a “coup,” inciting soldiers to disobey orders, and incitement to cause serious social chaos.

Meas Nee, a political commentator, said the hearing could be a step forward to pave the way for the government to request amnesty for those charged from the king, but called for political solution.

“It could lead to a possible political reconciliation,” he said. “I continue to urge politicians not to compete with one another in a win-lose solution. No one loses in politics. The real loser is the nation, Cambodia!”

 Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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