King Norodom Sihamoni’s Senate nominations were announced Thursday morning, just as he left the country for Beijing after transferring his authority to sign new controversial legal amendments to acting head of state and CPP Senate President Say Chhum.

The official reason given for the King and Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk’s departure was a routine medical check-up, although Sihamoni has recently made a habit of leaving the country when contentious laws are due to be signed into effect.

“Our King leaves for China as scheduled by the Chinese medical doctor ... As usual, no problem with his health. He could be there for a month,” said Oum Daravuth, a member of Royal Palace cabinet. Daravuth predicted Sihamoni would return by Khmer New Year.

The King’s departure comes in the wake of the Senate’s approval of a new lèse majesté law banning insults to the monarch, as well as a series of constitutional amendments. Rights groups, including the United Nations, have warned that the laws threaten freedom of speech, political participation and the press.

Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang said Sihamoni transferred his authority as head of state to Chhum upon departure.

The laws will be reviewed by the Constitutional Council to ensure they are in “accordance” with the charter, before being given to Chhum to sign.

While Bun Neang denied that the King left the country to avoid approving the controversial legislation, political analyst Lao Mong Hay thought otherwise.

Mong Hay said that the King would not want to sign laws that are “blatantly unconstitutional and therefore unjust”.

“Such laws hurt his conscience – and indeed that of any reasonable person,” Mong Hay said.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, a cousin of King Sihamoni and a former opposition member, said neither Sihamoni nor the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk ever took action against those who insulted them.

“I do not think King Sihamoni will ever use that law,” Thomico said.

Instead, he predicted “that law will be used … like many other laws to silence the opposition and civil society”.

Another member of the royal family who requested anonymity also doubted the laws were “the will of the King himself”.

Just as his father believed in freedom of expression, they said in a message, “King Sihamoni defends these values of free expression as he was raised in an intellectual environment that was close to the Western spirit in which points of view clash, where discussion and compromise exist.”

“I doubt that the King personally wants to shut the mouth of his whole population and the world at large through lese majeste laws.”

Daravuth declined to comment on whether Sihamoni supported the lèse majesté law, but ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan said the party had acted on its own in drafting the measure.

Eysan said Prime Minister Hun Sen “initiated” the law as a “royalist, king lover [and] king defender”.

In 2005, Hun Sen suggested dissolving the monarchy entirely when King Sihamoni balked at signing a controversial border treaty with Vietnam.

In a royal decree signed February 19 and made public yesterday, the King nominated his half-sister and former Funcinpec President Norodom Arun Rasmey to the Senate, along with Oum Somanin.

The Senate election will be held on Sunday, with local commune officials and National Assembly representatives voting on 58 of the 62 seats. Of the remaining four, the King nominates two while the National Assembly exclusively selects two more. After the dissolution of the only viable opposition party and the redistribution of its elected positions, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has more than enough representatives to win all 60 elected seats.

Additional reporting by Kong Meta and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon