The Council of Ministers ratified a group of contentious amendments to the Constitution and Penal Code on Friday, including restrictions on freedom of association and a ban on insulting the King, despite a growing chorus of concern that the laws could be abused to stifle dissent.
The proposed amendments come against the backdrop of an ongoing crackdown on critical voices that has not only seen the country’s main opposition party forcibly dissolved, but multiple independent media outlets shuttered and individuals targeted for anti-government speech on social media.
Phay Siphan, the council’s spokesman, confirmed that all proposed amendments had been approved, along with adjustments to the Penal Code and the laws governing the Constitutional Council.
The amendments, drafted under the supervision of Cambodian People’s Party Vice President Sar Kheng, will now go to the CPP-dominated National Assembly. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds approval to pass, a majority that the CPP is only three votes shy of, while the proposed lèse majesté law protecting the King will only require a simple majority.
The next most represented party in the assembly, Funcinpec, has previously said it would vote in favour of the amendments if they upheld the “interests of the nation”. Party officials could not be reached.
While The Post has not yet seen the draft law itself, amendments to articles 34, 42, 49, 53 and 118 were confirmed by multiple spokesmen.
The ratified Constitutional articles include:
Provides that Electoral Law shall determine any provisions restricting the right to vote or the right to stand as a candidate for an election
Grants freedom of association and right to form political parties. Will require political parties to "place the country and nation's interests first".
States that “every Khmer citizen shall respect the Constitution” and has an “obligation to ... defend the motherland”. Amendment will forbid individuals from undermining the country’s interest.
States that Cambodia will never invade or interfere in another country's affairs. Amendment will declare that Cambodia “opposes any foreign interference in its internal affairs”.
Will allow secretaries of state to be appointed by Royal Decree rather than a National Assembly vote.
Article 34 provides that electoral laws shall determine any provisions restricting the right to vote or the right to stand as a candidate for an election. The new amendments will reportedly clarify that those rights can be stripped entirely.
Article 42 grants freedom of association and the right to form political parties. The amendment will now require political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first”.
Article 49 states that “every Khmer citizen shall respect the Constitution” and has an “obligation to . . . defend the motherland”. The amendment will forbid individuals from undermining the country’s interest.
Article 53 states that Cambodia will never invade or interfere in another country’s affairs. It will be amended to declare that Cambodia “opposes any foreign interference in its internal affairs”.
Article 118, meanwhile, explains that the central government is made up of a prime minister, deputy prime ministers, senior ministers, ministers and secretaries of state. The amendment will remove secretaries of state from the cabinet, and allow them to be appointed by royal decree rather than a National Assembly vote.
Officials have given conflicting reports on whether the Penal Code will be additionally amended to prescribe punishments for violating the new Constitutional amendments.
Both the Council of Ministers’ Siphan and Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin said no additional amendments were necessary, because the Penal Code already contains provisions that can be used to punish such violations.
However, Ministry of Justice Secretary of State Keut Rith and constitutional working group member Sak Setha said that further amendments would be necessary.
In a speech on Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen had said a separate amendment to the Criminal Code would introduce a lèse majesté law banning insults to the king. State newswire AKP confirmed this on Friday, saying that “those who insult the king shall face from one to five years in jail” and be fined 2 to 10 million riel (about $500 to $2,500).
“Legal entities” who insult the king, shall be fined up to 50 million riel (about $12,500), along with “other punishments”.
“We just want to protect the King’s inviolability as stated in our Constitution,” Siphan said in an interview Sunday.
Siphan said civil society concerns that the law could be abused were unfounded, and that it does “not differ from other kingdoms”.
When the lèse majesté law was first floated, Southeast Asia expert Dr Paul Chambers warned that Thailand’s version of the law is often used to persecute political dissidents.
“In the case of Cambodia, where the Prime Minister is symbolically endorsed by the king, then a broad reading of lese majeste could mean that courts could go after anyone critical of Hun Sen,” he wrote at the time.
Hun Sen himself once suggested dissolving the monarchy entirely in 2005, when current King Norodom Sihamoni would not sign a controversial border treaty. Sihamoni’s authority is often circumvented by the government today, with the Senate president, a CPP member, able to sign laws if the king is abroad or otherwise unavailable.
On Sunday, Chambers said the government was only interested in protecting the King in order to extend its own power.
“The CPP would never really want to increase the power of monarchy because then the monarchy would rival the power of the CPP,” he explained.
Saying the new laws are strictly symbolic, Chambers said he expects Hun Sen to use them to legitimise his own growing control over the country.
Human Rights Watch, Licadho, and the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights have all expressed concern over the amendments, both because of their contents and because of the secretive circumstances in which they were drafted.
The International Commission of Jurists added its voice to the chorus on Friday, requesting that Cambodia halt “efforts to radically limit the right to freedom of expression”.
ICJ spokesman Kingsley Abbott is quoted in the release blasting the law as “a further attempt . . . to weaponize the country’s legislation”.
In an email on Sunday, Abbott also warned that Thailand’s law has been interpreted “so broadly” that it has had the effect of stifling free expression on politics and policy in general.
“The right to freedom of expression is protected under international law and should never be subject to criminal penalties, let alone imprisonment, which is a manifestly disproportionate penalty,” he added.
Updated: 6:23am, Monday February 5 2017