A Cambodian woman wears a face mask as a preventive measure against Covid-19 as she sits in front of a pharmacy in Phnom Penh on Aug. 13. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
A group of 65 Cambodian and international non-government organizations (NGOs) have urged the one-party state to ditch the draft law on public order that aims to regulate public spaces and public behavior.
It covers aesthetics, sanitation, cleanliness, noise and social values but can also be used to regulate the length of women’s dresses, and the NGOs say it contains an extensive array of provisions that effectively criminalize legitimate everyday activities.
“If enacted, the draft law will become yet another piece of repressive legislation in a legal framework that severely undermines human rights,” the group said in a petition to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The 65 include Amnesty International, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Khmer Youth Association, Transparency International Cambodia and the International Commission of Jurists.
Rights groups have accused the government of using the Covid-19 pandemic to introduce repressive laws, including the state of emergency draft law which they say is aimed at controlling dissent but under the cover of health issues.
According to the Thmey Thmey news website, Article 36 of the draft law will prohibit men from being shirtless in crowded places or from wearing shorts showing any part of the genital area. It said the law would also forbid women from wearing “items that are too short or [too see-through] or which show some part of the genital area.”
“We created this law to maintain social order and preserve national dignity,” said Ouk Kimlek, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry. “Therefore, we ban people from dressing extremely inappropriately and ensure that they dress properly.”
However, the NGOs said Cambodian women had been subjected to threats and imprisonment for their choices in clothing, with one woman convicted of a crime related to her dress sense already in 2020.
Hun Sen has publicly blamed female clothing for provoking gender-based violence, including sex crimes.
Article 36 would add to a culture of blaming victims by effectively criminalizing women, including survivors of violence, for their choices, the NGOs said.
They also said the government was trying to extend the scope of the law into the online sphere, giving rise to further concerns over the widespread repression of freedom of expression online in Cambodia. This included multiple arrests in 2020 of individuals for expressing opinions online.
The introduction of “repressive laws” emerged after the 2013 election when the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) went tantalizingly close to winning.
Hun Sen then claimed the CNRP was fomenting a color revolution and the party was subsequently banned amid a crackdown on the independent press and opposition dissent. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) then won every seat contested at the election in 2018.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest and before the courts on treason charges while senior CNRP figures like Sam Rainsy and Mu Suchua live in exile.
More recently, health and the coronavirus have been cited by the government for underpinning the need for new laws, which has surprised many in the human rights world given Cambodia has escaped the full brunt of the pandemic.
Cambodia has confirmed just 273 cases of Covid-19. There have been no deaths while 229 patients have recovered, with almost all arriving from abroad.
The group of 65 also said the new law would “severely harm” indigenous communities, grassroots associations, workers’ unions and local activists who depend on the ability to assemble to advocate for their rights.
“The draft law also contains provisions which seriously undermine the rights of individuals with mental health conditions, as well as facilitate discrimination and stigmatization,” it said.
“The draft law imposes arbitrary and unjustifiable restrictions on individuals with a so-called ‘mental disorder,’ which is vaguely defined as ‘a change which results in the loss of the sense of right or wrong.’”
It said this definition lacks any legal or scientific basis and fails to require an expert medical diagnosis.
“The draft law has been released amid a crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia. Laws that grant broad and unfettered powers to the government are regularly misused to undermine human rights and target free speech,” the group said.
“If brought into force, this draft law would further curtail the rights and freedoms of individuals in Cambodia to the detriment of the nation as a whole.”