Cambodia’s defense and foreign ministries on Wednesday condemned a U.S. decision to slap sanctions on the commander of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit for decades of human rights abuses, while a top exiled opposition leader hailed the penalties and said Hun Sen ordered the atrocities and should also be sanctioned.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed an asset freeze and forbid American nationals from doing business with Hing Bun Hieng, commander of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), which is under the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
“The PMBU has been implicated in multiple attacks on unarmed Cambodians over the span of many years, including in 2013 at Wat Phnom and in 2015 in front of the National Assembly,” Treasury said in a statement, referring to well-document acts of violence against civilians.
“Bun Hieng and the PMBU have been connected to incidents where military force was used to menace gatherings of protesters and the political opposition going back at least to 1997, including an incident where a U.S. citizen received shrapnel wounds,” added the statement.
The Ministry of Defense issued a statement rejecting the U.S sanctions against General Hing Bun Hieng.
“The Ministry of Defense … strongly condemns the U.S Treasury Department sanctions by freezing a senior Cambodia military officer’s assets,” said the statement.
“The sanction against a senior Cambodia official has unjustly violated Cambodia sovereignty without any evidence. This sanction is a stupid decision that was done arbitrarily by the U.S that Cambodia can’t accept,” it added.
Hun Sen’s Cabinet weighed in, saying the office “condemns the groundless U.S. actions against Hing Bun Hieng, who has been strictly implementing the law and who always protects the stability and security of Cambodia,” it said.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it “strongly denies allegations against the Cambodian armed forces that allegedly violated human rights and committed crimes against its people.”
“On the contrary, all people know that Hing Bun Hieng and his bodyguard unit have contributed to keep peace, stability, order and territory against foreign invasion,” said the ministry, which said the United States sanctions was politically biased attack on Cambodia before elections next month.
The sanctioned general, Hing Bun Hieng, went on local radio on Wednesday and denied having abused human rights.
“Why did they put pressure on me? Did I ever assault any people or grab any villagers’ land? Did I violate the rights of anyone that affected them?” he said
The attacks referenced in the U.S. sanctions decision were well documented by local and foreign media at the time.
In the October 2015 National Assembly attack, two opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers were dragged from their vehicles and savagely beaten in broad daylight while video cameras filmed it. Several members of Hing Bun Hieng’s guard unit were briefly jailed for committing the attacks, but released and promoted.
Hun Sen went on to have CNRP President Kem Sokha arrested in September 2017 on what observers say are spurious treason charges and in November his courts banned the party effectively turning national elections slated for July into a one-party affair that is not expected to be free or fair.
Speaking from exile, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service said he welcomed the U.S. move as a first step toward pursuing Hun Sen.
“In the first step, they sanctioned Hing Bun Hieng as an example, and the sanctions will spread to Hun Sen. Hun Sen cannot avoid it,” he said.
“Hun Sen was the one who ordered (the attacks), so the person who ordered them must also be punished,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.