Accessibility links

Breaking News

HRW Calls for Sanctions on Cambodia’s 'Dirty Dozen'

Major General Zhang Jian, commander of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command, and Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the Cambodian military, attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018

A new report by the international rights group Human Rights Watch links two of Cambodia’s highest military figures contesting seats in next month’s legislative election to murders, tortures, rapes, kidnappings and land grabbing.

The report, titled “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen,” documents the past of 12 senior military and police leaders who form what the rights group characterized as “a kind of Praetorian Guard” for Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In the wake of a U.S. decision to freeze the assets of one member of Hun Sen’s inner circle, HRW said it hopes the report will serve as a list of candidates for further sanctions after a July 29 election it says is already completely discredited.

Former Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Supreme Commander Pol Saroeun and his former deputy Kun Kim, who both have resigned from the army to run for parliament, are among the highest profile targets.

Sao Sokha, who has publicly expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and is the acting replacement for Pol Saroeun, is also among the group the authors argue have systematically employed brutality to crush Hun Sen’s political opponents throughout their careers.

“These 12 men are the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime over which an increasingly dictatorial Hun Sen rules.”

Human Rights Watch alleges the officials took leading roles in all the major acts of political violence in recent Cambodian history including the murderous 1993 election campaign, the 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally, Hun Sen’s violent military takeover later that year and scores of political killings that followed.

In a statement, the Ministry of National Defense said the report was a baseless attack on senior Cambodian leaders and further evidence of a foreign backed conspiracy to foment a "color revolution" in Cambodia. Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat told VOA the individuals identified had simply performed their duties to protect the country’s security.

“We don’t know about the sanctions because it’s the issue of the Americans. But we don’t support this move, we firmly oppose this,” he said.

In September last year opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha was arrested before his party - the only credible contender - was dissolved in November on the grounds they were planning a "color revolution" like those that swept through the Middle East earlier this decade.

It’s a charge that has been widely derided by observers, but Cambodia’s military establishment has lined up behind the narrative, vowing to crush those responsible while at times employing such language as “exterminate” and “dispose of” that are reminiscent of past horrors.

Pol Saroeun and Sao Sokha could not be reached for comment. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he was busy and National Police Spokesman Kirt Chantharith also could not be reached.

Barrier to reform

Human Rights Watch argues that with such powerful and violent figures of the state security apparatus increasingly incorporated in the core institutional organs of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, democratic reform in the country is impossible.

All 12 men featured in the HRW report are members of the CPP Central Committee, formally the party’s highest policy making body.

The group also includes senior police figures including National Police Supreme Commissioner Neth Savoeun, his deputies Chuon Sovan (who also serves as Phnom Penh police commissioner) and Mok Chito and Supreme Director of the Supreme Directorate for Immigration Sok Phal.

Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said the report was intended to outline clearly how such senior military and police figures had been able to stifled any opposition to the collapse of democracy in Cambodia.

“You know everybody sort of says this is a dictatorship but why can’t the people just rise up,” he said.

“The problem is that Hun Sen has a military that is quite clearly prepared to shoot if they do so and they’ve done that in the past where there have been protest, peaceful protests, where the troops have responded with live fire.”

Notably absent from the report is Hing Bun Hieng, the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit, who the United States sanctioned earlier this month for his alleged history of human rights abuses.

Hing’s U.S. assets have been frozen and U.S. entities will be forbidden from doing business with him under the Global Magnitsky Act unless Hun Sen takes actions to reverse the countries democratic backslide.

Robertson said Hing’s omission was not because he had already been sanctioned but rather due to the report's focus on leaders of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and police.