CAMBODIA: Ban on election campaign references to the monarchy is unconstitutional

Cambodia is making preparations for the general election to be held on 27 July 2008. Yet, well before the start of the official campaign period, which is due on 27 June, the 11 registered parties have already been busy.

As in previous elections, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party or CPP is exploiting all the advantages it has to garner popular support, while the other parties are facing threats, intimidation, assassinations, and restrictions in one form of another. According a group of civil society organizations, during the period of January 2008 — May 2008, there were five cases of political killings, 21 cases of harassment of and threat against party activists and 15 cases of dismantling of party banner signs.

On the 2nd June, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a public appeal to the king of Cambodia to issue a message “to prohibit political parties from using the monarchy as their own possession” in their campaign to garner votes. He said that the National Election Committee or NEC would prepare a letter of request to the monarch to issue the message he wanted. He also said that NEC had already issued such a ban to political parties, but that they had not heeded them, the last resort, therefore, was the king himself. It is generally accepted that that the recalcitrant party Hun Sen was alluding to was the one led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh and which is widely known as the royalist party.

Ranariddh used to lead the royalist FUNCINPEC party founded by his father, retired King Sihanouk. He and his FUNCINPEC party had been in a coalition government with Hun Sen and his CCP until Ranariddh’s ousting from FUNCINPEC’s presidency in 2006. While FUNCINPEC continued its coalition with CPP, Ranariddh formed a new, self-named party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party or NRP in 2007. Before his ousting, Ranariddh had become Hun Sen’s arch enemy.

Ranariddh is now living in exile in Malaysia. In 2007, following a criminal lawsuit by his former party; he was sentenced to prison for breach of trust in the management of FUNCINPEC’s assets. Though his appeal against his sentence is pending at the Supreme Court, Ranariddh would, according to Hun Sen’s recent statement, be “handcuffed and sent to prison” if he ever retuned to Cambodia.

Hun Sen envisaged the defeat of the “royalist party”, meaning the NRP, by “sons of commoners”, meaning Hun Sen and his own CPP, in the forthcoming election. He said that the royalist party had used the campaign slogan, “If you love the King Father (Sihanouk), vote for me (Ranariddh)”, but it had, nonetheless, been defeated many times in the past. Without naming him or his party, Hun Sen said that Ranariddh was using King Sihanouk’s name all the way, and the use of the name and the repeated defeats were harmful to the monarchy. In his call on the reigning king, who is also Sihanouk’s son, Hun Sen said “we want to protect the monarchy, but he destroys it”. This is the reason behind his appeal to the king to issue the concerned ban.

NEC has already issued such a ban. For the forthcoming election, it has issued a Code of Conduct for Political Parties, Candidates, and Political Party’s Agents during the Election of the National Assembly Members, July 27, 2008. This Code of Conduct was launched at a meeting with political parties held on the 6th May. The next day a leading Khmer-language newspaper, Koh Santepheap, reported on that meeting under the headline “Prohibition Governing the Election Campaign: End of Road for Self- Proclaimed Royalist Parties”.

This newspaper wrote, among other things, that “according to this law (code), it is prohibited to use photos, speeches, messages, achievements and names of the king, the great and valorous king (retired King Sihanouk) and the great queen mother (Sihanouk’s wife and the reigning king’s mother)…. during the election campaign”.

The ban on campaign references to the monarchs as reported by that newspaper is wider than the prohibition provided for in NEC’s Regulations and Procedures for election of members of the National Assembly dated the 28th May 2003. Point 7.13.11 of these Regulations and Procedures say that “Any propaganda activity using photos, royal speech, messages, achievements or the name of His Majesty the King or the logo of the NEC in order to gain votes shall be prohibited.”

The same reported ban is also wider than Prohibition No. 22 under Section IV on “Prohibitions for the Political Parties, Candidates, and Political Party’s Agents” of the Code of Conduct. This Prohibition No. 22 says that “The political parties, candidates, political party’s agents, and supporters must not use during the campaign, the (reigning) king’s photo or name, or the name of the great and valorous king (Sihanouk), or NEC logo to gain voters’ support.”

By virtue of Article 73 of the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly of 1997 as subsequently amended, NEC is habilitated to adopt a code of conduct, and all political parties and candidates, members and supporters of political parties must comply with this code and the rules, regulations, procedures and principles set out in this law. However, neither this law, nor any other law, nor the Constitution of Cambodia itself has laid down any principle for or has specifically stipulated such a ban on campaign references to the monarchy as adopted by NEC respectively in its 2003 Rules and Procedures and in its 2008 Code of Conduct, or as Koh Santepheap newspaper has reported.

Only the Political Party Law of 1997 has prohibited the use of symbols related to the monarchy as a symbol or logo of a political party under its Article 11, paragraph 3 which says that “symbol/logo of a political party shall not be copied or taken from a national symbol or picture representing religion, Angkor Wat temple or photos or pictures of all Khmer (Cambodian) kings.” However, this ban has nothing to do with the election campaign.

The ban as stipulated in NEC’s 2003 Regulations and Procedures or its 2008 Code of Conduct, or as reported in Koh Santepheap newspaper, or as might be issued by the Cambodian reigning king upon Prime Minister Hun Sen’s appeal, is therefore ultra vires, and violates the Cambodian people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.

When this prohibition is meant for a political party, that is, the royalist Nororom Ranariddh Party, as Prime Minister Hun Sen and Koh Santepheap newspaper’s headline have alluded to, it is discriminatory and violates the principle of legal generality. Furthermore, it violates Article 76 of the Constitution of Cambodia on the holding of free and fair elections of Members of the Parliament which says: “The deputies shall be elected by a free, universal, equal, direct suffrage and secret ballot.”

More importantly, the king of Cambodia would greatly compromise his integrity and moral authority, should he heed his prime minister’s appeal and issue any message prohibiting the use of campaign references to the monarchy as detailed above. He would violate the Constitution and laws of his country which he has taken oath to obey as spelled out in Annex 4 to the Constitution. He would also fail in his constitutional duty to protect the rights and freedoms of the Cambodian people as stipulated in Article 8 of the same Constitution.

Therefore the National Election Committee should remove the ban on campaign references to the monarchy from its 2003 Regulations and Procedures and 2008 Code of Conduct. For his part, Prime Minister Hun Sen should desist from imposing this ban and retract his appeal to the king to issue it.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-157-2008
Countries : Cambodia,