Cambodia’s ‘quiet king’ must find his political voice

The recent abdication of Malaysia’s Sultan Muhammad V after his controversial marriage to a 25-year-old Russian beauty queen has raised questions about the moral authority and responsibilities of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni.

Seasoned Southeast Asia observers are asking whether the Cambodian ruler could be the next monarch to abdicate. There is growing speculation about whether he can realistically remain at the helm of the one-party state controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen for the last 33 years.

Cambodia was recently declared an authoritarian state by the European Parliament after the major opposition party was banned in 2017. A 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report states that Hun Sen has repeatedly used political violence, repression and corruption to remain in power for three decades.

While both monarchies are members of ASEAN, the abdication of Malaysia’s sultan offers an opportunity to examine regional politics and alliances more closely. Malaysia’s nine Malay state rulers elect a king among themselves every five years, usually on a rotational basis. But Sultan Muhammad’s resignation comes just two years after he ascended to the post in December 2016.

The “silent” king
If Malaysia’s 15th king can abdicate to protect his monarchy over a personal matter, should Cambodia’s monarch continue to reign in silence over an authoritarian state that was created in contravention of a multilateral agreement, the 1991 Paris Peace Accords?

The Cambodian king’s reign has seen his country go from being a faux democracy to a faux monarchy controlled by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in both the Senate and the National Assembly in the aftermath of the forced dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and the 2018 general election, which was deemed flawed by the United States.

The king has been utterly silent during his entire 15-year reign, despite witnessing political chaos, illegal land-grabs, the killing of protesters and other human rights abuses, rampant patronage, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Despite a litany of crimes being committed by the regime against Cambodians, the “quiet king” has not spoken out against Hun Sen since his coronation in 2004. Cambodians have legitimate concerns that the king’s role – like that of the Supreme Court – is mainly to act as a mouthpiece for the ruling party. Both institutions have effectively been used to do dirty work for the regime.

While Hun Sen has been accused of using the judiciary to persecute his critics, the king can also give pardons at the prime minister’s request.

The HRW report, “30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression and Corruption in Cambodia,” describes how the prime minister rules through violence and fear. In its report, HRW urged Cambodia to undertake reforms “so that people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, and execution.”

Instead of being a silent puppet, the king has the option of taking sides if the international community or the United Nations condemn unjust actions by the Cambodian government. But does Cambodia’s king have the moral courage to exert his authority, take responsibility and use his position to condemn the violent treatment of his people?

HRW has noted that Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, abdicated to “express his opposition to Hun Sen’s method of government,” resulting in the prime minister saying that the late king “would be better off dead.”

Cambodia’s “silent king,” as Norodom Sihamoni is sometimes described, seems to be a perfect tool for Hun Sen to achieve his policy of “national conciliation and stability.” According to Hun Sen, Cambodia is one “happy family” and the king’s compliance and silence provide the bedrock for Cambodia’s stable society and an economy that has been doing relatively well.

Not wanting to be seen as part of the regime, Cambodia’s monarch has often left the country to avoid signing controversial legislation into law. Instead, a representative does his job for him.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that while the previous king used trips abroad as opportunities to make political statements, “Sihamoni, on the other hand, has usually acquiesced to signing controversial laws.”

Free speech is effectively outlawed
During King Sihamoni’s reign, many draconian laws have been passed. For example, the lese-majeste law allows the Cambodian government to file charges against anyone suspected of insulting the monarchy, including media outlets.

Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, described the law as incompatible with the country’s obligations under international human rights law, as it criminalizes the legitimate exercise of free speech.

In 2017, a law dissolving and banning all opposition parties was passed and another recent law bans designated political activists. The king stands accused of being complicit.

The HRW report described the role of international donors as essential for the Hun Sen regime’s survival, as is the monarchy. Entrenched in Cambodia’s history since the pre-Angkor Wat era, the monarchy has always been respected by Cambodians. But as modern Cambodia is now an authoritarian state, the monarchy cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Hun Sen regularly abuses and insults Cambodia’s monarchy, while most Cambodians look up to their king and show him the greatest respect. Even if the king signed a law taking away the rights of Cambodia’s three million voters, few would dare to publicly denounce him.

Recently, a voice message in which Hun Sen is heard ordering the owner of a TV network to fire its chief executive was released. Hun Sen was heard telling his minion: “Even if you are the mother or the father of the king, if I want to do it, I will do it. I can handcuff an opposition party leader in the middle of the night easily. You should know who Hun Sen is.”

If Cambodia had a genuine monarchy like Malaysia or Thailand, that remark would have resulted in Hun Sen being charged with breaking the lese-majeste law that his own government enacted, supposedly to prevent people from making disrespectful remarks about the royal family.

Hun Sen’s message shows what many already knew – he is above Cambodia’s ancient monarchy. After all, the king’s mother regularly shares center stage and appears alongside Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, who has allegedly abused her Red Cross position while on “humanitarian” missions.

But this is Cambodia’s monarchy, and like the entire country, it is largely ruled and owned by Hun Sen and his tycoons. The entire political and social system is being controlled by Hun Sen with military support supplied by Vietnam, while China splashes its cash to strengthen Hun Sen’s pillars – including the monarchy.

Malaysia’s former sultan’s decision to abdicate in order to ensure the survival of its monarchy is admired by people, but the Cambodian king’s personal reputation and the monarchy itself will continue to be ridiculed as long as he is cozy with the Hun Sen regime.