Fears that Cambodia’s new lese majeste law would be used by the government as a weapon against political opponents appears to have come to fruition with the first charges filed against supporters of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

A 50-year-old primary school principal and a 70-year-old barber were arrested earlier this month for insulting Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni after the controversial and draconian amendment was pushed through in April with little parliamentary resistance.

If convicted, the men will be sentenced from one to five years in prison and fined up to US$2,500. Public insult was previously criminalized, carrying the same maximum fine but no jail time penalties. The ban on insulting the king specifically went into effect in March.

The CNRP, Cambodia’s only viable opposition party, was dissolved in the face of international condemnation for its alleged role in what Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government claimed was a US-plotted “color revolution” to topple his regime.

No significant evidence of such a conspiracy has ever been revealed. With national elections scheduled for July, critics say the CNRP’s absence from the ballot is tantamount to dismantling Cambodia’s democracy to create a one-party state.

Both CNRP supporters were arrested for comments posted or shared on social media platform Facebook, which now plays a prominent role in Cambodia’s political arena.

A man looks at a Facebook profile photo of Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior of Cambodia, with words that read ''I go to vote because I'm a Khmer nationalist" in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Facebook profile photo of CPP politician Huy Vannak with the words ”I go to vote because I’m a Khmer nationalist”, Phnom Penh, May 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Access to social media has skyrocketed in Cambodia in recent years, with both the government and opposition using Facebook in particular to appeal to supporters nationwide.

The accused headmaster, Kheang Navy, was arrested for a comment in which he criticized the Sihamoni for allowing the CNRP to be dissolved without royal objection, according to local media reports.

In another post viewed by Asia Times, Navy slammed Hun Sen and his family, calling them “murderers” and advocating that his “cruel ruling regime” be changed.

The Facebook page of Ban Samphy, the barber, is more clearly laden with pro-CNRP messages. He was charged after sharing a post that called Hun Sen a “terrorist” and referred to Sihamoni as a “fake king.” Attached to the post was a video of a villager who was displaced by the Chinese-funded Sesan Dam criticizing the government.

Cambodia’s monarchy has been largely ceremonial ever since Sihamoni’s father, King Norodom Sihanouk, was ousted in 1970 when the National Assembly voted to remove him from power. Although he was reinstated as king in 1993, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party had by then consolidated its power over the kingdom.

Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest serving leaders, has had notoriously rocky relations with the royal family. In 2003, King Sihanouk claimed CPP soldiers and police were threatening him when he refused to inaugurate the National Assembly after a controversial election.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (L) shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who bows, (R) during a ceremony marking Cambodia's Independence Day in Phnom Penh on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Chhin Tang Sothy
King Norodom Sihamoni (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who bows, (R) during a ceremony marking Independence Day, Phnom Penh, November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Chhin Tang Sothy

Two years later, Hun Sen said he might dissolve the monarchy entirely when newly crowned Sihamoni did not immediately agree to sign a controversial border treaty with Vietnam.

Hun Sen’s about-face from would-be monarchy dissolver to stout monarchy defender has raised concerns that the stiffened law is designed more to stifle political opponents than preserve the dignity of the monarch.

Paul Chambers, a regional analyst and lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said it is now evident the lese majeste law “is being used to intimidate and imprison members of the political opposition.”

“Rather than really protecting the king’s dignity, the implicit intent of these arrests is to merge anti-CPP activity with insulting the king, as if the CPP were the political party of the king,” he said via email.

Chambers said this is similar to how the lese majeste law is sometimes abused in Thailand, where politicians and officials have hurled anti-royal charges to undercut rivals and opponents.

“The only difference between the Cambodian and Thai case is that for Cambodia the lese majeste law was constructed by a prime minister for his own benefit,” Chambers said.

The anti-royal law’s amendment was first proposed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng in December, along with a series of other controversial laws.

When called for comment on the law’s recent use, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak lambasted this reporter. “You are a pig from a European country,” he repeatedly shouted.

Sam Rainsy, then president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto
Sam Rainsy speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on July 19, 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy said the law was passed to give the ruling CPP legitimacy as the defender of the monarchy because it has lost popular legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

“The regime needs to secure some kind of cheap legitimacy — such as the one derived from the CPP’s allegedly defending a tamed monarchy — at a time when the only real and indisputable legitimacy that is based on popular support is vanishing with the elimination of the opposition and the civil society,” he told Asia Times.

Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid a series of politically-tinged charges and convictions, penned an open letter to Sihamoni urging him not to support the upcoming election. In the letter, dated May 23, he wrote: “Everyone knows that the vote in question does not constitute a real election.”

Rainsy has called for CNRP supporters to boycott the election, an appeal that might result in criminal charges against its members. In the letter, Rainsy reminded that the late King Sihanouk refused to preside over the opening of the National Assembly after perceived as rigged or tainted elections in 1998 and 2003.

Rainsy said the government is pressuring citizens to vote, despite the fact that all Cambodians have the right to abstain. “A respected Monarch should not accept or reinforce such pressure,” Rainsy wrote.

By law, Cambodia’s king has little if any real political power. While he does have the power of final approval of all laws, the constitution doesn’t seem to give him a choice, stating that the king “shall” sign any laws passed by the legislature.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R) greets people during the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2017.Tens of thousands of Cambodian spectators flocked to the riverfront in the capital Phnom Penh on November 2 to watch the boat races as the country celebrates the annual water festival. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R) greets people during the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Sihamoni also seems to have a habit of leaving the country when controversial laws are passed, occasions where he has delegated CPP Senator Say Chhum to sign in his stead, including when the lese majeste law amendments were passed last month.

Prince Sisowath Thomico told the Phnom Penh Post in February that he did not think his cousin Sihamoni would support the law. Thomico, also a member of the CNRP, said at the time he believed it would be used “to silence the opposition and the civil society.”

The law was opposed from the start by local and international human rights organizations, including the United Nations. Human rights organizations have issued fresh condemnations in the wake of the recent arrests.

Tom Villarin, a representative of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said the arrests were “another affront to fundamental freedoms” in Cambodia and that it is now “evident” the law is being used in a politicized manner.

Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called for international donors and other supporters of Cambodian democracy to demand an end to restrictions on free speech.

“Freedom of expression in the country is dying slowly but surely with each such politically motivated prosecution,” he said in an email to Asia Times.

“It’s clear that with this law, PM Hun Sen and his government have forged a new legal weapon that they primarily intend to use to intimidate and muffle activists in the political opposition.”