A rights group has urged Cambodia’s international aid donors to call for the removal of the country’s paramilitary commander because of comments he made earlier this month in which he said he learned state security-force tactics from those used by former German dictator Adolf Hitler.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Sunday urging Cambodia’s donors to demand the discharge of General Sao Sokha, commander of the 10,000-member Royal Khmer Gendarmerie and long-time supporter of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), for saying he used force against the opposition for political reasons, invoking tactics used by Hitler.
“General Sao Sokha’s open hostility to the political opposition is made all the more disturbing by his ‘lessons learned’ from Adolf Hitler,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in the statement. “It is people like Sao Sokha, with a long record of human rights abuses, that Prime Minister Hun Sen has relied upon to maintain his abusive rule in Cambodia for the past 30 years.”
During a Jan. 15 speech at the annual conference of the Phnom Penh military police, Sao Sokha indicated that he derived his tactics from Hitler and Vietnamese guerrillas, the statement said.
“Speaking frankly, I learned from Hitler,” he had said during the speech. “Hitler, after Europe, after World War I, the international community—at that time there was not a United Nations—imposed that there be only 100,000 troops. So how were Hitler and the Nazis able to marshal an army to make World War II?”
He also praised the Cambodian paramilitary’s role in forcibly dispersing anti-government demonstrations in January 2014, according to HRW.
The paramilitary forces killed five people and wounded 40 others when they opened fire on workers and other protesters who resisted dispersal and prevented the peaceful assembly of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, who were protesting the July 2013 national elections, and factory workers striking for higher pay.
Sao Sokha said the demonstrators intended to “push Cambodia into turmoil” and bring about political change, including the fall of the CPP government, according to the statement.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong endorsed Sao Sokha’s remarks about the opposition, indicating at the conference that the paramilitary’s actions restored social and political order and ensured that the CNRP was unable to mobilize larger gatherings, according to HRW.
Sao Sokha and Pa Socheatevong share authority over the Phnom Penh gendarmerie along with paramilitary commander General Rat Sreang—all of whom, despite their CPP party positions, are legally required to be politically neutral state officials, the statement said.
“Sao Sokha’s record and policy pronouncements make clear that he is incapable of political neutrality or leading the gendarmerie as anything other than a force of CPP repression,” Adams said. “Donors wanting to see genuine reform of Cambodia’s security forces should make respect for human rights and non-partisanship a requirement for all police, military, and gendarmerie commanders.”
Nevertheless, Sao Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service on Sunday that his words were misinterpreted.
“I told them [audiences in his earlier Jan speech] to learn from Hitler,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “What they should learn is about the fact that [Hitler] built up his soldiers after Germany lost World War I…and led the soldiers to persecute and kill Germany and other nations in World War II. He used his narrow nationalist mindset.”
Sao Sokha also lashed out against HRW’s statement saying that nongovernmental organizations always see a negative side of him.
Concerning the group’s call for his removal, he said he would comply with the government’s wishes if it decided to remove him.
Other NGOs and Cambodian opposition politicians joined HRW in criticizing Sao Sokha’s comments.
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), who was imprisoned after the January 2014 demonstrations, said Sao Sokha’s strategy of cracking down on the workers constituted a serious human rights violation.
“Military police should protect citizens,” he said. “They can’t just kill people.”
Kem Sokha, first vice president of the National Assembly, or parliament, and deputy president of the CNRP, last week criticized Sao Sokha’s speech, saying Cambodia could not implement Hitler’s theory and that the 2014 violent crackdown on demonstrators that led to the deaths of five people was unacceptable.
“In the democratic world, the government can’t use [paramilitary] forces to kill people,” he said.
Reported by Yeang Socheameta for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.