Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial government under Prime Minister Hun Sen is propped up by a core group of “ruthless” generals in the security forces, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report Thursday, describing the men as among the country’s worst rights offenders.
The report, entitled “Cambodia's Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen's Generals,” highlights 12 officers from the military, gendarmerie, and police who HRW said have helped Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “effectively eliminate all political opponents … rendering the upcoming July 2018 national elections meaningless.”
The dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November and a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media are actions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP stays in power in Cambodia following the July 29 vote. The prime minister marks 33 years in office this year and is among the world’s five longest-serving leaders.
HRW said the clampdown is the latest addition to Hun Sen’s “egregious human rights record,” noting that over more than three decades, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks—often by members of the security forces, who are rarely investigated.
Security forces also regularly arrest, beat, harass, and intimidate critics of the government, HRW said, including rights campaigners, labor activists, land rights activists, and those who express their views online.
“Over the years, Hun Sen has created and developed a core of security force officers who have ruthlessly and violently carried out his orders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, in a statement accompanying the report.
“The importance of Cambodia's generals has become even more apparent ahead of July's elections, as they engage in crackdowns against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters—and openly campaign for Hun Sen.”
HRW said that Hun Sen has secured his rule by promoting those he deems loyal to him, instead of to the military, gendarmerie, and police institutions they formally serve, adding that the 12 officers it spotlights in its report act as “a kind of Praetorian Guard” to the prime minister and owe their high-ranking and lucrative positions to political and personal connections with him that stretch back for decades.
“Instead of serving the public, these officials have acted to protect the rule of Hun Sen,” the group said, noting that while the 12 have served in government positions paying modest official salaries for their entire careers, “they have amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth,” likely as a reward for their fealty.
The 12 officers—who are legally bound to represent the state instead of a political party—have also acted in “an openly and highly partisan manner,” HRW found, and are members of the CPP Central Committee, meaning they must carry out all party policies. The group said that by promoting the CPP, the officers are acting in violation of international standards and Cambodian law.
Those profiled in the report include Royal Cambodia Armed Forces (RCAF) commanders Gen. Pol Saroeun, Gen. Kun Kim and Gen. Sao Sokha; Cambodian National Police commissioner Gen. Neth Savoeun; and deputy commanders of the Army Lt. Gen. Chea Man, Lt. Gen. Bun Seng, and Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha—who are commanders of Military Regions 4, 5, and 2.
Also profiled are Lt. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, deputy chief of the RCAF Joint General Staff and commander of Special Forces Paratrooper Brigade 911; Lt. Gen. Rat Sreang, deputy commander of the country-wide Royal Khmer Gendarmerie; Gen. Sok Phal, deputy supreme commissioner of National Police; Gen. Mok Chito, deputy supreme commissioner of National Police; and Gen. Chuon Sovan, deputy supreme commissioner of National Police and commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police.
In its report, HRW details the abuses in which the 12 are implicated—including violations of human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—committed from the 1970s to the present.
It notes that most of the 12 have been implicated in the use of “unnecessary, excessive, and sometimes lethal force” against protests about unfree and unfair elections, land confiscations, labor abuses, and low wages, and said many have also been involved in “non-political abuses against the ordinary population,” such as land takings, murder, torture, and arbitrary detention.
“No dictator reaches or stays at the top without the support of other ruthless people,” Adams said.
“Underneath Hun Sen are a core group of generals who abuse and intimidate Cambodians with the same contempt towards pluralism and democracy that Hun Sen has exhibited throughout his 33 years in power. Like their boss, they need to be called out and held accountable for their many crimes.”
HRW noted that a 13th senior member of the security forces, the commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard, Gen. Hing Bun Hieng, was sanctioned by the U.S. earlier this month, as his unit has been implicated in attacks on unarmed Cambodians and connected to a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition party rally led by its leader Sam Rainsy, in which 16 people were killed and more than 150 injured.
“U.S. sanctions on one of Hun Sen's top generals and closest confidantes for recent abuses and a two-decade-old grenade attack on the opposition should serve as a wake-up call to officials and commanders,” Adams said.
“Hun Sen won't be able to protect them forever if they commit atrocities against Cambodians.”
In addition to calling for sanctions against and the removal of the 12 officers, Adams told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia requires “new systems and institutions” to ensure that bad actors are not given positions of power.
“If we were to replace these 12 people right now, Hun Sen would just put 12 bad people in their place, so what we need is a system where, when these 12 people go—when they're removed—we have 12 professionals who are committed to the sake of the country, not the sake of the CPP,” he said.
Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense on Thursday dismissed HRW’s report as “fabricated” and “groundless,” and said that the group was “violating Cambodian sovereignty … in order to serve the dishonest politics of a number of foreign countries” and members of the CNRP, who it accused of plotting to topple the government.
When contacted by RFA, Gen. Sok Phal said he was unconcerned over what HRW had written about him and suggested that neither HRW nor RFA’s reporters understand Khmer culture, before refusing to comment any further about the report.
Attempts to reach other officers profiled in the report by phone went unanswered on Thursday.
Head human rights investigator Am Sam Ath of the rights group LICADHO told RFA he welcomed HRW’s report, suggesting that if the officers were not guilty, they should submit to a transparent investigation of the claims.
He also suggested that the U.S. decision against Hing Bun Hieng and HRW’s report would “make [senior government officials] think twice … prior to taking any action that might be deemed a violation of human rights” to avoid international condemnation and sanctions.
Political analyst Meas Nee told RFA that HRW’s allegations deserved to be investigated, but said he doubted that Cambodian authorities would do so.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.