The Real Danger of Cambodia’s ‘Gay King’ Episode

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The Real Danger of Cambodia’s ‘Gay King’ Episode

A recent incident could have broader implications for democracy and human rights in the country.

The Real Danger of Cambodia’s ‘Gay King’ Episode
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

On December 25, a photograph appeared on Facebook of the Cambodian King’s face photoshopped onto an image of gay pornography along with the message: “Cambodia King is gay.” The following day, the government announced that it was investigating three suspects, two Cambodian and one Thai, who are believed to have produced the image.

Now, it is not uncommon for rumors about King Norodom Sihamoni’s sexuality to be picked from the Phnom Penh grapevine for conversation. And when describing the monarch, journalists rarely exclude the phrase “lifelong bachelor” or “music-loving bachelor,” or something to that effect, perhaps with the same intent that British tabloids once employed the euphemism “confirmed bachelor” with a figurative nod.

For example, Patrick Winn, senior Southeast Asia correspondent for GlobalPost, left little room for subtlety when he wrote in a 2011 article that “gay Cambodians note with a wink that the king is a style-conscious bachelor and former ballet instructor in Paris.” Sihamoni’s own father, the late Norodom Sihanouk, once said that he “loves women as his sisters.” (In 2004, while monarch, Sihanouk felt it necessary to answer rumors about his own sexuality by publicly stating: “I am not gay, but I respect the rights of gays and lesbians. It’s not their fault if God makes them born like that.”)

But whether the king is gay or not is beside the point. What really matters is, first, what is says about LGBT rights in Cambodia and, second, how the government responds: if it will attempt to redefine what can and cannot be said about the monarchy.

For starters, consider the response of Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak: “The king represents the whole nation and they are insulting the king, which is like they are insulting the whole nation.” Straight away, the line of reasoning is clear: to be called gay is to be insulted. The government’s view, then – how else can it be seen? – is that homosexuality is a slur. How does this sit in a country that, according to some reports, is gradually changing its attitudes toward homosexuality? Not well, one might argue.

It has also been a rare instance when the government and opposition see eye-to-eye. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former secretary for the king, now a high-ranking member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), publicly backed the investigation, telling local media: “Sexual preferences should be left private, so I think it’s a violation and I would support an investigation — for any individual not only the king… It is a matter of honor and dignity.”

As for the government’s response, an investigation has been launched into the photoshopped image, though it isn’t clear yet what law the suspects are accused of breaking. Unlike neighboring Thailand, Cambodia has no lèse-majesté law. Article 7 of the constitution states the King “shall be inviolable,” though such hazy language might even be a detriment in this case, and Article 502 of the criminal code only proscribes punishments for insulting civil servants and elected officials.

Indeed, shortly after the image went online, Khieu Sopheak was quick to point out that “in Cambodian constitutional law, there is an article that stipulates that the King cannot be harmed. But no other articles mention that it is illegal to insult the King, so it depends on the judicial system.” And, as legal expert Sok Sam Oeun told the Phnom Penh Post on December 26,“if there’s no punishment in the law, we cannot punish anybody. Legally, we cannot extend the definition [to include] another crime. The law should be clear.”

But the law isn’t always clear in Cambodia. Indeed, the investigation was launched despite the fact that no official complaint had been made about the image, as Sopheak told the media, which contradicted his own decision not to investigate death threats being made against CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha only weeks earlier because of the lack of complaints. So already one can see the blurring of the judicial process or, at least, the government’s approach to such matters.

If those responsible for the image are to be punished, one avenue is that they will prosecuted for defamation. For this to happen, the King must first decide whether he thinks he has been defamed or not. If he does, then I can say with much certainty that those responsible will be prosecuted, since defamation lawsuits are rarely acquitted in Cambodia, especially when high-ranking people are said to have been defamed.

If the King does not believe he has been defamed, then the question is whether the government will take the matter into its own hands. This appears to be the case. Khieu Sopheak told AFP: “We have got orders to arrest them. If we don’t take action against them, more people might follow their act.” What’s more, an article by VOA Khmer quoted Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin as saying that the ministry will look into whether a new law is needed that specifically targets people who defame the King – so lèse-majesté will come to Cambodia.

This should raise the hairs of anyone concerned with freedom of speech in Cambodia. What’s worse is that some of the voices whom one would turn to for reassurance have not been quite as reassuring. Sam Chankea, spokesman and senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, who himself was convicted of defamation in 2011, was quoted by the Cambodia Daily as saying that while he didn’t know of anyone being punished for insulting the King, the people involved in the image should be punished – though not as seriously as those in Thailand.

What are we to make of this? A spokesman for a prominent human rights group, who has tasted the bitterness of being convicted for airing his opinion, thinks it is acceptable for people to be punished when they have violated no crime whatsoever.

It is a possibility then that one image, however distasteful, will be the harbinger of lèse-majesté to Cambodia. This is unsettling by itself, to be sure, but consider the broader political implications. Unlike his father, Sihamoni has been largely absent from politics. If, like me, you consider constitutional monarchs to be at their best when silent, this might be a good sign. But it isn’t. Rather than silent, a better adjective is acquiescent. Here is what Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament, told the Associated Press in 2011: “I think we can use the words ‘puppet king.’ His power has been reduced to nothing.” This quote appeared in an article headlined: “Cambodia’s king a ‘prisoner’ in his palace’.” Since his ascendency in 2004, the monarch has largely been held to the whims of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

As anyone aware of Thai politics knows, lèse-majesté has been politicized. The same could happen in Cambodia if such a law is passed. The government is already on shaky ground. In October, Cambodia became the first country to acknowledge Thailand’s request to extradite Thai citizens accused of lèse-majesté. What’s more, the government has made the political links to the photoshopped image. VOA Khmer quoted Khieu Sopheak as saying that two of the suspects were opposition activists.

What we are left with then is that a silly, infantile image, which really should have been ignored, could provide one more reason for the Cambodian government to crack down on freedom of speech. However distasteful the image was, the backlash could certainly be more unsavory.