Second Cambodian man arrested for insulting king on Facebook

A worker paints next to a large portrait of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on May 12, 2018.
A worker paints next to a large portrait of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on May 12, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Cambodian police have arrested a 70-year-old barber for allegedly insulting the king, the second such case since a controversial lese majeste law was introduced this year.

The detentions have stoked fear that the law may be abused to silence political critics, as it is in neighbouring Thailand.

Siem Reap provincial police said Ban Somphy was arrested on Sunday (May 20) after a week-long hunt.

"The police started searching for Ban Somphy on May 13 after the Siem Reap provincial security team found out that Somphy shared text and a photograph on Facebook which insulted the king," a Siem Reap police officer who identified himself as Mr Ty told The Straits Times. "The police managed to identify him on May 19."

While investigations continue, Ban Somphy will be detained in prison in the northwestern Siem Reap province, according to Mr Yin Srang, the director of Siem Reap provincial court's administration secretariat.

If convicted, Somphy could be jailed for up to five years, and fined up to 10 million riel (S$3,275).

Thailand punishes those who defame or insult of the king, queen, heir-apparent and regent with sentences of up to 15 years jail for each conviction. Given that repeating an insult can also be interpreted as a crime, public information about such cases is often vaguely worded.

Last year, a Thai military court sentenced a man to 35 years in prison on 10 separate violations.

While Cambodia's law applies specifically to comments made about the king, political analyst Meas Nee worries that legal prosecutions could spike given that there is still little awareness about this law.

"Because the law does not mention clearly what sort of defamation would violate the king's reputation, it is very dangerous for somebody to say something about the king," he said.

The weekend arrest in Cambodia came about a week after police arrested a 50-year-old primary school principal for another alleged royal insult, also made via social media.

Kheang Navy was detained in the central Kampong Thom province for comments made on Facebook about the alleged role of King Norodom Sihamoni in the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party (CNRP).

The CNRP, the biggest challenger to the ruling Cambodian People's Party in recent years, was dissolved by a court in November last year over allegations that it was fomenting a revolution. Its leader Kem Sokha has been detained since he was arrested last September for alleged treason. Many of its former lawmakers have fled the country, while its parliamentary seats have been redistributed.

With the CNRP out of the picture, Prime Minister Hun Sen is poised to extend his three-decade-long reign as premier after the general election on July 29.

While King Sihamoni has played a largely ceremonial role in this reign, he is required to sign off on laws. In October last year, he officially acceded to amendments to Cambodia's electoral laws that allowed the CNRP's seats to be redistributed, triggering criticism about his role in the suppression of democracy.

In a speech to the new senate in April, King Sihamoni said that it "must ensure it protects justice and respects human rights in order to create long term harmony in our society", according to a report in the Phnom Penh Post.