Cambodia’s elites poised to gain the most from new lèse majesté law

Hun Sen’s government pushed through laws on lèse majesté, public assembly and voting rights. His latest moves confirm the death of Cambodian democracy.


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political crackdown continues. He dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November. Parliament has now pushed through laws on lèse majesté, public assembly and voting rights.

In neighbouring Thailand, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure. Cambodia’s monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, is an educated, well-travelled and private man. Few Cambodians publicly criticise or insult him.

A lèse majesté law seems unnecessary. The king may not need protection, but others feel they do. Hun Sen and his political allies want to strengthen their positions.

It is now a crime to insult the monarchy

Under the new lèse majesté law, it is a crime to insult the monarchy. Those found guilty face jail terms of between one and five years. The state could also issue fines of between 2 million and 10 million riels (US$500-US$2,500). Prosecutors have the power to file suits on behalf of the monarchy.

At the same time, the government introduced new laws on public assembly and voting rights. Convicted felons can no longer vote. In the past, they could vote once they had served their sentences.

There is no apparent need for a Cambodian lèse majesté law due to the monarch’s position and reputation. Cambodia has adequate laws governing dissent and abuse. Many politicians enjoy royal patronage. They now have protection.

Following the law changes, Hun Sen has more power

On its own, a well-defined lèse majesté law is not a big issue. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) went much further. They amended public assembly and voting laws. They used broad, vague wording when putting these laws together. Such text means they can clamp down on a wide range of activities.

“There is a genuine danger that this law will be abusively applied to target those who express legitimate criticism of the royal government, as has been the case in other countries, such as Thailand,” claimed Chak Sopheap from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

By restricting people assembling, Hun Sen has limited Cambodians’ ability to speak out. Banning convicts from voting keeps his political rivals out of the picture. It makes a CNRP revival even more unlikely.

Hun Sen believes he can justify his party’s actions

Hun Sen and his party members feel they can justify their crackdown. Senator Chum Vong even claimed that too much liberty had damaged Cambodian society.

Observers inside and outside of Cambodia disagree. More than 60 organisations came together to release a statement, arguing, “These amendments would provide yet more legal weaponry to a government that appears determined to eliminate all forms of peaceful dissent.”

Hun Sen believed foreign powers, notably the US, were orchestrating the CNRP. He argued they were plotting a coup against the CPP. He has ramped up rhetoric about protecting Cambodian interests.

Cambodia is now following a similar path to Thailand

The lèse majesté laws are extreme. The government will punish the media if they repeat or quote insults. This similarity is one parallel between Cambodia and Thailand. There are several others.

Thailand has a well-established lèse majesté law, but the junta stepped up its use to clamp down on dissent. United Nations (UN) envoys criticised both Cambodia and Thailand.

Sources: Facts & Details, Malaysian Talk, Reuters, The Economist

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has led Thailand since the 2014 military coup. Despite promises to the contrary, a return to civilian-led democracy is unlikely. There, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has checked some of Prayuth’s powers. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Hun Sen rules with limited constraints.

Hun Sen is driving Cambodia down a similar path towards a quasi-military dictatorship. Experts claim that Hun Sen is misusing legislation to secure his position. They add that more “abuse” is to come.

Hun Sen has unchecked power to act as he pleases

There is no longer an effective opposition party that can stand up to Hun Sen and the CPP. He will remain as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future. Nobody is standing in his way at home. In theory, the only significant pressure could come from abroad.

That pressure has not materialised. The US made a stand and may increase sanctions on Cambodia. That has made little impression. The EU is unlikely to follow suit. It will not risk further impoverishing millions of Cambodians. Australia and Japan, also allies of Cambodia, have remained silent.

With Chinese backing behind him, Hun Sen will risk losing the support of Western allies. He has already challenged the US and the EU to cut funding if they dare. The further he shifts Cambodia from the West’s sphere of influence, the more power he has.

Even the monarchy must bow to Hun Sen’s will

Expect Hun Sen and his political allies to capitalise on the new laws to punish those who oppose them. They now have the tools to silence dissent and jail their political opponents.

The Cambodian king absented himself instead of signing the legislation into law. He has often left the country to avoid signing any controversial legislation. Some claim this is his way of protesting. If so, it is an ineffective tool. In Cambodia, it seems as if even the monarchy has submitted to Hun Sen’s dictatorial rule.