PHNOM PENH: A spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry says the country’s new proposed lese majeste law was designed to "scare" the public.
A draft amendment to make insulting the king criminal offence was approved by the Cambodian government on Friday (Feb 2), prompting wider fears about a crackdown on civil rights and freedom of expression.
"Every human being is scared of the prison … we created the law to make people scared," Khieu Sopheak told Channel NewsAsia.
"It is not strange to have this regulation for countries that have a king reigning. Thailand even has a more serious sentence than this," he said.
Neigbouring Thailand has the world's toughest lese majeste law, with sentences of up to 15 years for each offence of royal insult. Prosecutions under the Thai law have risen since a 2014 coup and critics of the junta say it has been used as a means to silence any dissent.
Offenders of Cambodia's proposed lese majeste law would face a prison sentence of one to five years and a fine of up to US$2,500.
Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said Cambodia should have had the regulation to punish people who insult the king a long time ago.
"The constitution already states that the king is inviolable but our criminal code does not have any regulation to punish against person who violates against the king, so it is necessary that we need to make amendment our criminal code," he said.
He added that previous comments in the media and on social networks had affected the dignity and fame of the king, as well as political leaders, a phenomenon that could be explained by "falling morality".
Freedom of expression nowadays is full of anarchy beyond the law and without responsibility, which sometimes affect the king, Malin said.
"So in the context of the freedom of expression without responsibility and such anarchy, it demands there be a regulation to prevent and punish, in order to protect the dignity and the fame of the king," he said.
The lese majeste law is expected to be passed before the general election, Malin confirmed. The ruling party’s dominance of the National Assembly means there will be no obstacles to the legislation being approved.
"WE CANNOT CRITICISE AS WE DID BEFORE"
Current monarch King Norodom Sihamoni has performed a mostly ceremonial role as head of state and has been almost completely absent from daily politics, unlike his father King Norodom Sihanouk who was an active political figure throughout his life.
King Sihamoni is required to sign off on laws, which in recent times has prompted some criticism from those who felt he should intervene more to prevent the dismantling of democracy.
In October 2017, he signed off on four sets of controversial amendments to Cambodia’s electoral laws, officially approving provisions that will allow seats belonging to the opposition – Cambodia National Rescue Party – to be redistributed in the event of its dissolution.
Following that, former Deputy Prime Minister Ly Lay Sreng criticised King Sihamoni in a private conversation. His conversation was recorded secretly and distributed without his permission on Facebook, leading to a defamation suit filed by lawyers of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Lay Sreng’s former party Funcinpec.
In September, another woman Moeun Lihor, a vendor in Banteay Meanchey province, was arrested and imprisoned for insulting the king and Hun Sen in a Facebook post.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said it was the duty of the government to protect the king.
"The constitution stated that the king is inviolable so if there is no regulation to punish those who insult the king, it means that the constitution is meaningless.
"Expression is freedom but we cannot make any expression that violates or is prohibited by the constitution."
He added that in order to make this law is more effective, authorities needed to broadly disseminate the information to the public and strengthen the implementation of the law.
Although King Sihamoni is Cambodia's head of state, Hun Sen has dominated the Southeast Asian country for more than 33 years.
Rights groups said they feared the new law could also be used to target critics of the government, which last year had the main opposition party shut down and its leader, Kem Sokha, arrested on treason charges he says were politically driven.
"The cabinet's approval of a lese majeste law appears to be a further attempt by the government to weaponise the country's legislation against its perceived opponents," said Kingsley Abbott, ICJ's Senior International Legal Adviser.
"The government's ongoing misuse of the law is particularly concerning given the lack of independent and impartial judges to provide appropriate checks and balances on its power," he added.
University student and activist Kong Raya, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2016 for calling for a "colour revolution" and criticising the king in a Facebook post, said he will continue his criticisms regardless of the law amendment, but with caution.
"My opinion is a democratic opinion so I will still keep criticising but we have to be more careful than before. We cannot criticise as we did before," Raya said.
"I will still maintain my democratic principals when I see someone did something wrong. I will keep criticising and criticise in a constructive way."