Last Updated 8 July 2021

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, with a Prime Minister who is head of government and a King who is head of state.

Cambodia remains under the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen (in power since 1985), following a military coup orchestrated by Hun Sen in 1997. Hun Sen’s government is regularly accused of human rights abuses and repressing political opposition. Senior members of Hun Sen’s government, including Hun Sen himself, held positions under the Khmer Rouge and have been implicated in Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in the late 1970s.1

According to Cambodia’s Ministry of Cults and Religion, approximately 95% of the population is Buddhist (of the Theravada school) and around 2% of the population is Muslim.2 The Muslim population is predominantly ethnically Cham, with most residing in rural areas along the Mekong River.3

Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Article 43 of the Constitution establishes Buddhism as the State religion. It also recognizes the right of “freedom of religious belief and worship,” without reference to non-religious beliefs, and “on the condition that such freedom does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security.” Article 4 of the Constitution states that the motto of the Kingdom of Cambodia is “nation, religion, king.”4

Buddhism is promoted by the government in a multitude of ways, including through Buddhist instruction in public schools, the appointment by the government of Buddhist monk leaders, and financial support to Buddhist institutions.5Kong, P., ‘Freedom of Religion in Cambodia’, in Cambodian Constitutional Law, Hor, P., Kong, P., Menzel, J., (2016, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung).

Acts of religious groups are overseen by the Ministry of Cults and Religions. All religious groups are required to register with the Ministry of Cults and Religion.6Kong, P., ‘Freedom of Religion in Cambodia’, in Cambodian Constitutional Law, Hor, P., Kong, P., Menzel, J., (2016, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung). There are no penalties for failing to register, but registered religious groups do receive an income tax exemption.7

Education and children’s rights

Article 68 of the Constitution8 states that, “The State shall disseminate and develop the Pali schools and the Buddhist Institute.” In addition, the General Department of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Cults and Religions is mandated to “[o]rganize, prepare and cooperate to research, educate, and disseminate Buddhism and [its preachings].”9Article 8, Sub-decree No 154 ANKr.BK on the Organization and Functioning of the Ministry of Cults and Religions, 11 July 2011 (Cambodia).

The standard curriculum contains compulsory religious education classes, with no non-religious alternative. The lessons focus mostly on Buddhism, though there are also lessons on various faiths (excluding humanistic and atheistic beliefs) and a course on “Harmony of Religions”. All students in public schools are obliged to attend the lessons.10Kong, P., ‘Freedom of Religion in Cambodia’, in Cambodian Constitutional Law, Hor, P., Kong, P., Menzel, J., (2016, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung).

There are reports of institutionalized sexual abuse taking place within Buddhist monasteries. A local NGO offering counselling and support to victims of sex abuse stated that the “the high importance placed on pagodas in Cambodia [which has] created a culture of gated self-preservation in the nation’s largely autonomous Buddhist sanctuaries.”11

Family, community and society

Anti-witchcraft persecution

Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy permeate many aspects of social and cultural life in Cambodia. However, Buddhism in Cambodia is also mixed with the belief in spirits and the supernatural.12 Persons suspected of being influenced by malevolent forces or “black magic” may be subjected to harassment, eviction, beatings, and killings.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that between 2012 and 2018, there were at least 49 incidents of witchcraft persecution, among which 35 involved killings and 14 attempted killings or harassment cases in the country.13 The OHCHR found that most cases occurred in areas with lower levels of economic and social development, and that witchcraft-related crimes, poverty and exclusion are heavily interrelated.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

“Offences Against Buddhism” in the 2011 Criminal Code

The 2011 Criminal Code14 prohibits and penalises acts that constitute “Infringement on State Religion.” The concerned section is vague and penalizes certain forms of expression that may be perceived as offensive to adherents of Buddhism, such as “the unauthorized wearing of Buddhist monks’ robes in public” (Article 508). “Insult” committed against a Buddhist monk, nun or layman, defined as “words and gestures likely to undermine the dignity of a person”, is also criminalized (Article 516).

In March 2021, the Ministry of Cults and Religion revoked the media license of an online publication for criticizing a Siem Reap monk for lashing three junior monks. The Ministry also indicated its desire to prosecute the social media figure behind the online publication, Pheng Vannak, for “insulting Buddhist monks” under Article 516 of the Criminal Code.15

Freedom of expression and civil society

Front Line Defenders reported in 2019 that “Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior state officials frequently engaged in rhetoric damaging to civil society. The Prime Minister specifically threatened prominent human rights organisations with closure, and individual defenders with legal action.”16

The government has adopted a number of laws which curb freedom of expression and association. This includes the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), which allows termination of a foreign NGO’s license to operate if their activities are deemed to “jeopardize peace, stability, public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society.”17 Under LANGO, authorities have shut down independent NGOs and denied them registration.

In February 2018, the government added a lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) clause to its Penal Code. The amendment states that “the use of words, gestures, writings, sketches or objects which undermine the dignity of a person constitutes an insult” and that “insulting the King” can result in up to 5 years imprisonment. Critics of the government and members of the opposition have since been convicted and jailed under the law.18

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