The National Assembly of Cambodia unanimously passed amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code on February 14, making defamation of the king illegal.
In full plenary session, the 123 members of parliament of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, royalist Funcinpec, and two other minor parties approved lese majeste charges – the crime of insulting the monarch – that had been drafted last month.
With these additions to the criminal code, insulting the monarchy is punishable by a fine of two to ten million riel ($500 to $2,500) and up to five years of imprisonment.
This decision will proceed to the Senate and then be passed to current King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval.
In a separate statement signed on February 9, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the amendments were crucial to protect the dignity of Sihamoni and to ward off foreign interference and political activity that could be harmful to Cambodia’s national interest.
Previously, in October 2017, former Funcinpec Party Deputy Prime Minister Lu Lay Sreng called Sihamoni a “castrated chicken” for not intervening in Cambodia’s political crisis during a private conversation which was secretly recorded and distributed without his permission. Although lese majeste laws did not exist at the time, Hun Sen threatened to sue him for insulting the king.
Hun Sen has possessed power for three decades, making him one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has cracked down on political dissent, its opponents and critics. In 2017, the government asked the supreme court to dissolve the main opposition, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In addition, most critical media outlets have been shut down.
As a constitutional monarch, Sihamoni plays a minimal role in public affairs. Hun Sen, however, has near-absolute control over Cambodian politics.
Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights Chak Sopheap emphasized the vague nature of the amendments. They may cumulatively have the effect of banning any form of criticism of the Cambodian government, posing a “severe threat to the rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Cambodia’s neighbor Thailand also used its strict lese majeste laws to suppress political dissent since its royalist military government came to power in 2014. U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies was under investigation for lese majeste, though he was not charged due to diplomatic immunity under international law.
In one of the most publicized instances, 27-year-old Thanakorn Siripaiboon faced 37 years in prison after posting a sarcastic photo of King Bhumibol’s pet dog.
David Kaye, the UN’s special reporter on the promotion of opinion and expression, said, “Lese majeste provisions have no place in a democratic country.”