Cambodia’s opposition party wants the country’s defense minister to explain why three soldiers convicted of assaulting a pair of lawmakers recently won promotions, with one receiving the rank of brigadier general.
A senior Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) official told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that opposition lawmakers will summon National Defense Minister Tea Banh to the National Assembly to clarify why the three soldiers were promoted.
“If there are irregularities in the promotions which could affect the interest of the nation or national security, our lawmakers are entitled to question and request that the [relevant] ministers to clarify the matter,” said Ho Vann, an opposition member of the National Assembly.
“If the clarification cannot be made, the National Assembly has the power to issue a motion as a reproach,” he said.
A date for Tea Banh to address the issue has yet to be set, Ho Vann said. Tea Banh also holds the deputy prime minister title.
On Oct. 26, 2015, CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun were dragged from their vehicles and savagely beaten by protesters after the two men attended a morning meeting of the legislature.
The assault carried the hallmarks of a well-planned, well-coordinated attack by well-trained individuals, and three members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit admitted taking part in the assault.
While Mao Hoeun, Sot Vanny, and Chay Sarith pled guilty to the assault on May 27, 2016, video footage shows at least two dozen men involved in the attack.
All three men are members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, an elite operation within the Cambodian armed forces that functions as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Asia’s longest-serving despot.
Though the three men were convicted of the attack, they served only a year of their four-year sentence in prison.
Soon after they were released in November, the men were promoted, although it’s unclear whether they still remain in the bodyguard unit.
Chay Sarith was promoted from colonel to brigadier general by a royal decree signed by King Norodom Sihamoni dated November 22, while Sot Vanny and Mao Hoeun were promoted from lieutenant colonel full colonel on Nov. 17.
“Such promotions are an encouragement to the offenders to further attack lawmakers,” Kong Saphea told RFA. “It is a systematic arrangement by those powerful people behind them.”
“While we can’t even yet receive justice, they encourage the offenders through the promotions,” he added. “It’s another bad sign for the nation that such promotions go against the legal system as they are still subject to investigations by the courts although their sentences were suspended for three years and they were the culprits.”
The attack occurred as more than 1,000 supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) surrounded the parliament building, calling for CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha to step down as first vice president of the National Assembly.
The brazen attack took place in broad daylight while video cameras filmed it. It was condemned by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. Human rights groups characterized it as part of a wider campaign that Hun Sen and his allies are waging against the political opposition in Cambodia.
The lawmakers suffered broken noses, a ruptured eardrum, and broken bones and teeth. Nhay Chamraoen required surgery to save his sight in one eye.
Human rights organizations decried the promotions of the three soldiers.
“Lawmakers represent the citizens as a whole and have immunity,” said Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). “But when lawmakers are physically attacked and those attackers are given promotions, it produces a negative effect as it results in lawmakers living in fear.”
Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) President Hong Kim Suon questioned the legality of the promotions.
“They were the culprits, and in legal principle, they cannot be promoted or given any positions,” he said.
Attempts to contact National Defense Ministry’s spokesperson Chhum Socheat for further comments were unsuccessful, but he told local media the soldiers had paid their debt to society.
“Their punishment has already been served through the court, they can go back to work, and promotions will be given according to individual [circumstances],” Socheat told The Phnom Penh Post, adding that the decision was approved by an evaluation committee.
U.N. condemns detentions
While the soldiers received light sentences for the beatings and have been promoted, four human rights activists and a National Election Committee official remain in jail in what many believe to be a vendetta by Hun Sen and the CPP.
Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, all workers for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and National Election Commission (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya have been imprisoned since April.
They are also accused of attempting to pay hush money to Kem Sokha’s purported mistress in the government’s wide-ranging probe into the alleged affair that many inside and outside Cambodia see as politically motivated.
The “ADHOC Five” remain in jail, and Kem Sokha was granted royal pardons in the case against the CNRP leader.
On Wednesday two U.N. human rights experts called on the Cambodian government to immediately release them.
“The use of criminal provisions as a pretext to suppress and prevent the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and to silence human rights defenders is incompatible with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which has been signed by Cambodia,” said Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.
Smith’s call was also endorsed by human rights expert Sètondji Roland Adjovi, who currently heads the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
In November, the working group called for the immediate release of the ADHOC Five and recognized their right to compensation in accordance with the ICCPR.
“The Working Group found that the deprivation of liberty of individuals in question, being in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is arbitrary,” Adjovi said.
Demoting Kem Sokha
While the international community was condemning the detentions, RFA has learned that the National Assembly’s powerful Permanent Committee is planning to strip Kem Sokha of his minority leader status.
The Permanent Committee scheduled an extraordinary session on Jan. 31 to vote to amend the rules so the title can be taken away. The session comes after a recommendation by the Legislation Commission of the National Assembly.
National Assembly spokesperson Chheang Vun told reporters after the meeting that Hun Sen wants to amend the National Assembly’s rules so Kem Sokha’s title can be removed.
The minority leader’s position was created as part of a mechanism to engender détente between the country’s political leaders.
“There are reasons,” he said. “Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen, president of the Cambodian People’s Party, has requested this process, and it was the Legislation Commission’s view that the mechanism cannot be implemented because it has been employed to violate other powers due to dishonest practices.”
Ho Vann told RFA that taking away the title is another example of Hun Sen’s attempts to weaken the legislature’s power. Samdech is an honorary title bestowed by the Cambodian king that roughly translates to “lord” in English.
“Such a mechanism was established less than two years ago, and now it is about to be abrogated,” he said. “Citizens and journalists can see this themselves. This is another weakness of our National Assembly.”
Reported by Khorn Savi, Morm Moniroth, and Tha Vuthy for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.