Cambodia’s parliament on Wednesday voted unanimously to approve controversial amendments to the constitution and criminal code which could see people who insult the monarchy face up to five years in prison.
The 123-member National Assembly held an extraordinary session on Wednesday to vote the proposed amendments through in the presence of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Leng Penglong, National Assembly spokesman, said the amendments were intended to strengthen the rule of law and the democratic process ahead of the general election in July.
“These amendments aimed to enhance the multi-party democracy regime, strengthening the national interest, the interest of the people, defending neutrality, independence, territory, and opposing internal interference in Cambodia’s affairs,” he said.
Fresh News, a pro-government website, said the amendments included vaguely worded articles which included political parties putting the “national interest ahead of everything” and “absolutely opposing foreign interference”.
In another amendment, lawmakers voted to make insulting the monarchy punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500 for an individual or $12,500 for a legal entity.
Penglong defended the amendments, saying the new rules were lenient compared with similar rules in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal wrote on Facebook following the passage of the amendments that the move was an “autocratic overreach” by Hun Sen.
"The crackdown on political freedom in Cambodia continues,” he wrote. “The Cambodia National Assembly, essentially a legislative rubber stamp of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decades-old regime, has voted to make any criticism of the King, and potentially any member of the Hun Sen government, a criminal offense punishable by jail time and fines."
"This is just a continuation of the Hun Sen regime's ongoing efforts to eliminate and outlaw all political opposition in the lead up to national elections this year,” he added. “I join with the international community in expressing outrage at the autocratic overreach by Hun Sen that is severely restricting the freedoms of Cambodian people."
Members of the CNRP also came out to “vehemently reject” the amendments. In a statement released on Thursday, the CNRP called the amendments “illegitimate”.
The “Cambodia National Rescue Party thinks that the current procedure of the National Assembly is inconsistent with the constitution” because the CNRP did not participate in the vote, read CNRP’s statement.
Sok Eysan, a CPP spokesman, defended the assembly’s legitimacy. “Who cares if they [the CNRP] acknowledge it or not,” he said. “Should we allow the color revolution to happen illegally and violate democracy? They need to be imprisoned, dissolved and eliminated.”
Additional reporting by Men Kimseng and Neou Vannarin.