PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia’s Cabinet on Friday endorsed an amendment to the criminal code making insulting the king a criminal offense punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
After the endorsement, the change must go to both houses of Parliament for approval.
The government said the amendment is needed to protect the honor and reputation of the monarch.
King Norodom Sihamoni, 64, is a constitutional monarch who maintains a low profile and plays a minimal role in public affairs, while Prime Minister Hun Sen exercises almost absolute control over politics.
Neighboring Thailand has the world’s strictest lese majeste law, carrying up to 15 years in prison per offense. Critics say the law is often wielded for political reasons, and there is concern Cambodia’s version might be used the same way.
Cambodia’s Constitution declares that the king is inviolable but contains no statute criminalizing criticism.
The rights group International Commission of Jurists condemned the Cabinet’s approval of lese majeste legislation, saying in a statement that it “appears to be a further attempt by the government to weaponize the country’s legislation against its perceived opponents.”
“The right to freedom of expression is protected under international law and should never be subject to criminal penalties, let alone imprisonment, which is a manifestly disproportionate penalty for the exercise of the fundamental right to free expression,” it said.
Hun Sen has had a complicated relationship with the monarchy. Sihamoni’s late father, King Norodom Sihanouk, was the dominant figure in Cambodian politics for several decades, and he and Hun Sen were rivals for power after the genocidal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Sihamoni, who took the throne after Sihanouk died in 2012, does not share his father’s interest in politics, and has posed no challenge to Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule.
His passive attitude toward politics has given rise to some criticism in recent years as Hun Sen — who technically needs Sihamoni to approve new laws — has launched harsh crackdowns on his opponents.