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National Assembly passes lèse majesté law, limits to freedom of association

 Prime Minister Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Defence Minister Tea Banh (L-R, front row) join lawmakers to vote on controversial constitutional amendments at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh this morning.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Defence Minister Tea Banh (L-R, front row) join lawmakers to vote on controversial constitutional amendments at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh this morning. Hong Menea

National Assembly passes lèse majesté law, limits to freedom of association

The National Assembly unanimously passed amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code Wednesday that will impose restrictions on political rights and make it illegal to disrespect the King – changes that observers called a “disaster” for civil liberties in the Kingdom.

In a full plenary session, the 123 parliamentarians of ruling Cambodian People’s Party, royalist Funcinpec, and two other minor parties unanimously approved the amendments that had been drafted last month.

Additions to the Criminal Code, as laid out in a statement by Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 2, create penalties for violation of the new lèse majesté law of between one and five years in prison and fines of 2 million riel to 10 million riel (about $500 to $2,500). Similar laws in Thailand have been used to suppress political dissent.

The amendments to the Constitution introduce new restrictions to political participation, and add vague language asserting the nation’s “interests” and forbidding foreign “interference”.

The measures now go to the Senate – widely seen as a rubber stamp – before being passed to current King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval.

A Senate spokesperson could not be reached on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a separate statement signed on February 9, said that the amendments were needed to protect the country from outside influence.

“Therefore, all political parties, politicians and Cambodian people . . . shall devote to work collaboratively in protecting [Cambodia’s] independence, sovereignty and against any interference from outsiders,” he said in the statement.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has been engaged in a crackdown on dissent that has seen the country’s only viable opposition forcibly dissolved, NGOs monitored and independent media outlets shuttered. Government officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly accused foreign powers of fomenting regime change.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose Funcinpec party was recently given 41 seats in the National Assembly following the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, signs in to this morning's session.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose Funcinpec party was recently given 41 seats in the National Assembly following the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, signs in to this morning's session. Hong Menea

The amended articles of the Constitution include Article 34, which now explicitly states that electoral law can provide for the withdrawal – not just restriction – of the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections.

Changes to Article 42 will require political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first”, and forbids them from acting “directly or indirectly to jeopardise the interests of the Kingdom of Cambodia and of Cambodians”.

Article 49 will now mandate that “every Khmer citizen shall respect the Constitution” and has an “obligation to . . . defend the motherland”; and Article 53 will now state that Cambodia will never interfere in another country’s affairs as it opposes any foreign interference in its own.

The amended Article 118 now excludes secretaries of state as members of the Council of Ministers.

Mu Sochua, the self-exiled deputy president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, said the National Assembly as it stands was “not legitimate”, as 55 of the parliamentarians had not been voted for. Following the CNRP’s dissolution, its seats were redistributed to smaller parties – mainly to Funcinpec – that won a combined total of less than 5 percent of the vote in 2013.

“Cambodia is in a situation of deep constitutional crisis when the Constitution can be amended at the will and for the sole interests of a political party,” she said. “The language of the amendments are specifically to close the door to any form of freedom and liberty.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, agreed and called the passing of the lèse majesté law “a disaster for freedom of expression”.

“Sadly, given their track record, there is basically zero chance that the CPP-led government won’t use this law to fabricate cases against their political opponents in ways that will actually cause greater problems for the people and the Cambodian monarchy,” he said in an email.

He went on to say that Cambodia’s courts would likely take an expansive view of the law – and who is protected under it.

“What’s particularly worrisome is given the significant expansion of the number of royal titles that PM Hun Sen and his cabinet have awarded themselves, it’s not a stretch to imagine the CPP may try to use this whole effort politically to try to protect themselves at some point in the future.”

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said after the session that he had agreed to vote for the laws because they “would benefit Cambodians”, and that his party would try to join in lèse majesté investigations.

“It is of common interest for the whole nation. We try to consolidate the nation with the government so that Cambodia can progress further,” he said.

But Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the amendments were a “major cause for alarm” that posed a “severe threat to the rights to freedom of expression and association”.

National Assembly President Heng Samrin votes in favour of controversial amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin votes in favour of controversial amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code yesterday. Hong Menea

“Cumulatively, they could have the effect of banning any form of criticism of the Cambodian government, and they appear to be aimed at eliminating the last remaining spaces for free and open debate in Cambodian society,” she said in an email.

Sopheap noted, however, that the constitutional changes would have to be accompanied by more amendments to the Criminal Code for legal penalties to be enforced against individuals and legal entities.

National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long said he did “not care” about people who criticised the amendments, also insisting that the laws were “for the benefit of all Cambodians”.

“We are not interested in a small number of people who are not familiar with Cambodia and just critical of it,” he said.

The assembly also approved amendments to the authority of the Constitutional Council. The amendments extend the authority of the constitutional committee to monitor complaints by individuals penalised by the National Election Committee, but removes its ability to manage complaints from political parties that have been denied registration by the Ministry of Interior.

Updated 6:48am, Thursday 15 February 2018

This article previously stated that constitutional amendments passed in the National Assembly would limit freedom of assembly. In fact they will place restrictions on freedom of association. A caption also said that Funcinpec had received 52 seats in the National Assembly. It received 41. These have been corrected.

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