Cambodian police yesterday arrested two opposition activists after they posted comments on Facebook about how Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has treated King Norodom Sihamoni.
As the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported, Yim Sinorn and Hun Kosal, whom it described as close to detained opposition leader Kem Sokha, were arrested shortly after making the posts, and remained in custody as of last night.
According to translations by the pro-government news site Fresh News (so take them with a grain of salt), the posts in question highlighted the diminished role of the monarch under Hun Sen’s rule, and alleged that the Cambodian leader had effectively usurped the role for himself.
“According to the voice of the people in the coffee shop, we can clearly see who is the real king,” Yim Sinan posted on his Facebook page, according to Fresh News. Sinorn wrote in his post that the government was “abusing and humiliating the king in many ways. I, as the next generation of politicians, are committed to mobilizing all of our capabilities with former opposition leader Kem Sokha to protect the king and throne.”
The arrests come weeks after a Phnom Penh court convicted Kem Sokha of treason – the government accuses him of conspiring with foreign governments to overthrow Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government – and sentenced him to 27 years in prison. Both of these actions are part of a wave of repression that has rolled over Cambodia in the lead up to national elections in July.
Yim Sinorn and Hun Kosal’s comments referenced the tight control that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has exercised over King Sihamoni since his accession to the throne in 2004, to prevent him from exercising any political influence. This was exactly the role played by Sihamoni’s father, Norodom Sihanouk, who played an outsized role in Cambodia’s politics from his accession to the throne in 1941 until his abdication in 2004.
Throughout his political career, both as king and as a politician, Sihanouk utilized his royal aura and vast popularity to great political effect. Even after he was returned to the throne in 1993, he chafed at the limitations of Cambodia’s constitution, which states that the king “shall reign but shall not govern.” The 1990s and early 2000s were marked by sparring between Hun Sen and Sihanouk, as the latter attempted to reassert his control and the former tried to rein it in, a struggle that culminated in Sihanouk’s abdication in 2004. (He died eight years later in Beijing.)
At the time, senior CPP officials including Hun Sen played an important role in ensuring Sihamoni’s succession, precisely because the Czech-educated monarch, a ballet dancer who had spent most of his life in Europe, had little appetite for politics and could be expected to give the CPP government free rein.
Since then, Sihamoni has been tightly confined to his ceremonial roles, under the omnipresent gaze of CPP officials, in particular that of Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol. At the same time, Hun Sen has taken on many of the symbolic roles that have in the past been associated with the royal family, such as inaugurating Buddhist pagodas and dispensing charity to the needy, while the CPP has positioned itself as the defender of Sihanouk’s legacy.
Indeed, in recent years, it has begun attacking its opponents for “insulting” the monarchy, interpreting even accurate or relatively tame comments as beyond the bounds of the law. In early 2018, Hun Sen’s administration adopted a lese majeste law, under which a prosecutor can file a criminal suit on behalf of the monarchy against anyone deemed to be insulting the royal family. The widely decried law carries punishments of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has since been on the end of a number of lese majeste complaints, after on several occasions referring to the king as a “puppet” of the CPP. If Yim Sinorn and Hun Kosal are charged, it is likely to be under this law.
As RFA reported, as Sinorn’s Facebook post prompted an active discussion, Hun Sen himself slid into the discussion to denounce his and Kosal’s comments.
“It would be weird if they are not guilty because [what they said] is not an expression of opinion, but it is a distortion of the truth with an intent,” he wrote, according to RFA. “Whatever it is, leave it for the court to decide.” Of course, the Cambodian leader’s intercession makes it all too clear how the courts will rule.