Hun Sen’s 30-year rule as Cambodia’s prime minister has been characterized by intimidation and political manipulation, a U.S.-based rights group said Tuesday, calling on donors and the international community to press for strengthened democratic reforms in the country.
In a report released ahead of the anniversary of his taking office on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said Hun Sen had repeatedly used “violence, repression, and corruption” to stay in power and become the world’s currently sixth longest-serving political leader. Hun Sen’s government swiftly dismissed the report without addressing any of its assertions.
“Although in recent decades he has allowed limited space for political opposition and civil society, the patina of openness has concealed an underlying reality of repression, and his government has been quick to stifle those who pose a threat to his rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
According to the report, Hun Sen has abused his office while in power, repeatedly referring to politics as “a struggle to the death” between him and his opponents, and threatening them with physical harm, while claiming that only his demise or incapacitation could unseat him from the country’s leadership.
It said that since Hun Sen maneuvered to stay in office after rejecting the results of a United Nations-administered election in 1993, he and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had remained in power by manipulating the elections held every five years since, including most recently in July 2013.
“Cambodia urgently needs reforms so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, and execution,” Adams said.
“The role of international donors is crucial in making this happen.”
Hun Sen’s government dismissed the report Tuesday, accusing Human Rights Watch of launching a coordinated attack with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to defame the prime minister and the CPP.
“The report has totally omitted Hun Sen’s legacy of sacrifice for the peace and development of the country—but that is because Human Rights Watch is blind [to this accomplishment] and bent the truth,” Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Tith Sothea told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The opposition party has cooperated [with Human Rights Watch] on this twisted report to defame the government,” he said.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
List of abuses
Based on official documents, interviews with officials, journalists and academics, and United Nations’ records, the report describes Hun Sen’s role as a commander during the bloody Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s, his systematic imprisonment of dissidents as prime minister in the 1980s, and his role in death squads during the U.N. peacekeeping operation in 1992-1993.
It also documents the role of his bodyguard unit in a deadly grenade attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s entourage in 1997, his bloody coup later that year—which led to the execution of more than 100 royalist opposition members—and his “repression and corruption of the past decade,” during which campaigners, union leaders and reporters have been killed in connection with their opposition activities.
In recent years, the report said, Hun Sen’s government has created a land crisis that has affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.
Additionally, the prime minister has routinely obstructed accountability for international crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, “relying on his control of a Cambodian judiciary that also ensures continuing impunity for abuses.”
Human Rights Watch urged international governments and donors to press Cambodian officials to enact and implement “major reforms so that neither Hun Sen nor any other leader in Cambodia can systematically violate human rights and democratic norms.”
The rights group called for reforms to the country’s electoral body to ensure its independence, as well as free and fair polls, and the creation of an independent police service and commission.
It also proposed forming an impartial judiciary service and independent judicial commission, banning officers and judges from holding leadership positions in political parties, and ensuring that authorities respond in a professional manner to allegations of human rights abuses.
“After 30 years of experience, there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will wake up one day and decide to govern Cambodia in a more open, inclusive, tolerant, and rights-respecting manner,” Adams said.
“The international community should begin listening to those Cambodians who have increasingly demanded the protection and promotion of their basic human rights.”
Call for investigation
Ny Chakrya, the head of human rights and legal aid for domestic rights group Adhoc, said Human Rights Watch’s report was accurate in examining Hun Sen’s political past.
“I agree with the report’s findings—it shows serious human rights violations within the past 30 years,” he told RFA.
Ny Chakrya said human rights abuses are “getting worse” in Cambodia under Hun Sen, adding that a crackdown by military police on a protest in January last year which left five garment workers dead showed that “government agents are not afraid to violate human rights and kill in public.”
“The country’s leader must be held responsible for any unsolved systematic crimes, because the culprits worked under his orders,” he said.
Ny Chakra called on the government to investigate and bring closure to all the open cases of crimes mentioned in the report in order to clear its reputation.
Reported by Sochi Vy and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.