PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—A Cambodian court found a Chinese factory supervisor guilty on Tuesday of desecrating pictures of the country’s recently deceased former king and ordered her to be deported.
The court found Wang Zia Chao guilty of violating statutes on insulting the monarchy and gave her a one-year suspended jail sentence and a 2.5 million riel (US $620) fine.
She was also ordered to pay two million riel ($500) in compensation to a worker at the factory who had demanded her prosecution.
The case appeared to be the first in recent decades in which the vaguely worded lese majeste law was applied.
The 43-year-old Chinese woman caused an uproar on Monday at a garment factory complex in Phnom Penh’s outskirts when she cut up two photos of former King Norodom Sihanouk that workers were carrying before the morning shift. She accused them of shirking work.
Sihanouk, who led Cambodia through peace and war, died Oct. 15 in Beijing at age 89. His body was returned last Wednesday to his homeland, where it was taken to the Royal Palace for a week of official mourning.
The factory supervisor told the court on Tuesday that she did not know the photos were of the late monarch. “If I knew, I would not have ripped them up,” she said.
More than 1,000 outraged workers marched on Monday to the palace to demand she be punished. The factories’ managers then fired her and turned her over to the authorities.
Phnom Penh police chief Lt-Gen Chuon Sovann said on Monday that if police had not arrived on time, the woman would have been in danger of being physically attacked by the workers.
The case touched some sensitive nerves. Foreign investors are a key element in Cambodia’s economic growth, while workers represent a potentially powerful domestic political force.
Garment exports are Cambodia’s major foreign exchange earner, and as many as 400,000 people work in hundreds of factories in the Phnom Penh area.
The government tries to strike a balance between workers’ demands for higher pay and employers’ desires to keep wages low. Many factories are subcontractors for large Western brands. The factories involved in Monday’s incident produce trousers for US and European markets.
There has been an outpouring of grief for the late king, who since abdicating in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni in 2004 spent much of his last years in China for medical treatment. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s relations with Sihanouk were cool at best, he has taken care to arrange the proper ceremonies and show his respect.
China’s government was a steadfast friend of the late monarch, and it arranged the plane on which his body was returned.
The Chinese official news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday that Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei in Beijing called the factory supervisor “wrong” in her actions.