Cambodia's Dirty Dozen A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen's Generals (HRW)

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Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia is in a human rights freefall. Despite the strong human rights provisions in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the 1993 constitution—and billions of dollars in development aid, including a plethora of technical assistance devoted to the rule of lanetw, judicial reform, and human rights—the country is rapidly reverting towards a one-party state.  

The speed of the collapse of even the patina of democracy and basic rights has been startling. Over the past year alone the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been dissolved and the official leader of the party, Kem Sokha, jailed on spurious treason charges. The founding leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, was convicted yet again on trumped-up charges in multiple criminal cases; to avoid imprisonment he has been in exile since 2015. His successor, Kem Sokha, was arbitrarily arrested in September 2017 and remains in prison.

In September 2017 the Cambodia Daily was forced to close, while in May 2018 the owners of the Phnom Penh Post were coerced by the government into selling the paper to a Malaysian company with ties to Hun Sen. The government has ordered FM radio stations to stop broadcasting news produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Voice of America (VOA); two former RFA journalists have been arbitrarily detained and accused of espionage simply for providing information to a foreign news organization. Critical voices have all but disappeared from the country’s media. Five staff members of the highly regarded Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were jailed and now are out on bail awaiting trial on politically motivated charges. Human rights organizations and other critics of the government have responded by self-censoring to avoid being targeted.

The list of attacks on basic rights and freedoms could go on and on.

Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985 and since 2015 chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979.[1] With the fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, he is now among the world’s five longest-serving autocrats. As with many other despots, he talks about himself in the third person and has tried to create a cult of personality, including naming hundreds of schools (many donor-financed) after himself. His official title in Khmer is “Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen,” which literally translates to “princely exalted supreme great commander of gloriously victorious troops.” He has called himself the “five-gold-star general to infinity.”  




The impetus for this crackdown appears to be that Hun Sen and the CPP fear that without such measures they cannot be sure of winning the next national elections scheduled for July 2018. The CNRP had unprecedented success in the 2013 national elections despite systematic and structural biases and significant fraud. It repeated that success in the 2017 commune elections. Cambodia’s urban and younger voters, increasing as a percentage of the population, have strongly supported the opposition. Many Cambodians, as is common in other countries after long periods of authoritarian rule, simply yearn for change. 

Hun Sen has responded by suggesting that engaging in opposition politics or criticizing him, the CPP or the government is a form of treason. While providing no evidence, he has railed against alleged efforts to stage a “color revolution,” accusing the United States and other foreign powers and organizations of plotting to “overthrow” the government. While these are the most intense attacks on critics since his 1997 coup against his then-coalition partners (the royalist party, FUNCINPEC, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh), disdain for pluralism and democracy has long been the hallmark of Hun Sen’s rule.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Hun Sen’s egregious human rights record. In his time in power, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks. Although in many cases those responsible for the killings are known, in not one case has there been a credible investigation and prosecution, let alone conviction. In some cases, triggermen or fall guys have been prosecuted; higher-ups have been left untouched. Many other critics have been arrested, beaten, harassed and intimidated, including human rights workers, labor leaders, activists and members, land rights activists, and members of a rising generation of bloggers and others expressing their views online. CPP-controlled courts have convicted hundreds of people on trumped-up charges or other politically motivated grounds.

While Hun Sen has orchestrated repression, he has remained in power by creating a cadre of ruthless members of the security forces to implement his vision and orders. He has done this by promoting people based on loyalty to him instead of the institutions they formally serve, such as the military, gendarmerie, and police.

This report details the responsibility of 12 of these senior security force officers for human rights abuses in Cambodia from the late 1970s until the present:

  • Gen. Pol Saroeun, Supreme Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF);
  • Gen. Kun Kim, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff;
  • Gen. Sao Sokha, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Commander of the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie (GRK);
  • Gen. Neth Savoeun, Supreme Commissioner of the Cambodian National Police;
  • Lt. Gen. Chea Man, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 4;
  • Lt. Gen. Bun Seng, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 5;
  • Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 2;
  • 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 GRK and Commander of the Phnom Penh Gendarmerie;
  • Gen. Sok Phal, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Supreme Director for Immigration;
  • Gen. Mok Chito, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Secretary-General of the National Anti-Drugs Authority; and
  • Gen. Chuon Sovan, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police.

These 12 men are the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime over which an increasingly dictatorial Hun Sen rules. Each is politically and personally close to Hun Sen and helps ensure that the army, gendarmerie, and police perform a political role in guaranteeing his and the CPP’s continued rule. Each has throughout his career served in government jobs paying relatively modest salaries, yet each has amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth.

Although each of the 12 has a legal responsibility to represent the state instead of a political party—and to carry out their duties in an impartial and neutral manner—all act in an openly and highly partisan manner. Each is a member of the CPP Central Committee, the party’s highest policy-making body. Members of the Central Committee are required to carry out all party policies. This conflicts with international human rights standards, which protect the rights of members of security forces to be members of a political party, vote, and privately express their personal opinions, but requires them not to be politically partisan in carrying out their professional duties or otherwise be seen to favor members of one political party over others. It also appears to violate article 9 of Cambodia’s Law on the General Status of Military Personnel of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (1997), which states that “[m]ilitary personnel shall be neutral in their functions and work activities, and the use of functions/titles and the state’s materials for serving any political activities shall be prohibited.”  

The abuses in which the 12 are implicated include violations of human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed from the 1970s to the present. 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. Many have also been involved in non-political abuses against the ordinary population, such as land takings, murder, torture, and arbitrary detention. Some participated in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime from April 1975 to January 1979. All have had roles in subsequent periods: the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) from January 1979 to April 1989; the PRK’s direct successor, the State of Cambodia (SOC), from April 1989 to June 1993, including the period during which the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) administered the country (March 1992 to June 1993); the Provisional Government of Cambodia and its direct successor Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) from July 1993 to the present.

Each of the 12 is part of a kind of Praetorian Guard for Hun Sen. All 12 owe their senior positions in the security forces to personal links to Hun Sen dating back two decades or more, and their willingness to abuse human rights. Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim were, like Hun Sen, members of the Khmer Rouge military-security apparatus, all three having been local cadre in the Khmer Rouge East Zone. Hun Sen crossed into Vietnam in 1977 and became a key figure in the Vietnamese-sponsored organization in 1978 of armed and other opposition to Pol Pot’s government, serving as the PRK’s foreign minister, the world’s youngest. Pol Saroeun, who arrived in Vietnam in 1978, was also a significant player in the Vietnamese-backed opposition at that time. Sao Sokha, Chea Man, and Choeun Sovantha were either aides to Hun Sen in 1978 or became members of the small number of armed forces units he set up at that time. Kun Kim, Neth Savoeun, and Sok Phal became close to Hun Sen from at least the early 1990s, and Chap Pheakdey from at least the middle of that decade when he played a key role in Hun Sen’s 1997 coup. Chuon Sovan and Rat Sreang were both originally protégés of Kun Kim, through whom they became linked to Hun Sen.

Khmer Rouge-era Abuses

The two generals with the longest known records of human rights abuses are Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim. Both are former members of the military-security apparatus of Pol Pot’s Communist Party of Kampuchea (known as the Khmer Rouge). While in power, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths from execution, starvation, and disease of an estimated 1.2 to 2.8 million Cambodians, between 13 and 30 percent of the population, including deaths in which Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim are implicated via their responsibilities at Khmer Rouge security offices, which were interrogation, hard labor, and execution centers. Pol Saroeun was vice-chairperson of the Khmer Rouge East Zone General Staff, which oversaw the zone-level S79 Security Office, and Kun Kim was chairperson of the Tbaung Khmum District Security Office in the Zone’s Sector 21.

PRK-era and SOC Period Abuses

The policies and practices of the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodian society and created conditions for the success of the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978 and the creation of the PRK in January 1979. The new government incorporated not only Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim, but also many other former Khmer Rouge at various levels. Among them was Hun Sen, another one-time member of the Khmer Rouge military-security apparatus who, during his time as a Khmer Rouge commander, played an unclear role in areas where crimes against humanity were committed.

The PRK was opposed by the Khmer Rouge, which reformed and fought an almost continuous guerrilla war against the Cambodian government from 1979 to 1998, the year Pol Pot died amidst the collapse of the Khmer Rouge movement. It was also opposed by various non-communist anti-PRK movements, most notably the National United Front for an Independent, Peaceful, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), founded in 1981 by Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk and later led by his son, Norodom Ranariddh.

A one-party state, the PRK established and enforced its rule through widespread political imprisonment without charge or trial and a system of torture of thousands of political detainees, many of whom died from such ill-treatment and abysmal detention conditions. 

Ten of the 12 officials profiled here are implicated in these abuses via their service in various PRK and SOC (successor to the PRK) political, military, intelligence, and police units, the institutional bases from which they rose to their current prominent security force positions. Abuses committed during repression of rising popular dissatisfaction with the PRK and its reliance on Vietnamese backers include arbitrary political detention and routine torture in a provincial prison run under the authority of Pol Saroeun when he was governor there; in the municipal prison of the capital, Phnom Penh, when Neth Savoeun was a senior police officer there; and in the political security apparatus of the Ministry of Interior when Sok Phal was an important cadre there.

UNTAC-era Abuses

In October 1991, SOC, FUNCINPEC, a second non-communist opposition group (the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front), and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge signed the Paris “Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict,” which was also signed by 18 foreign governments. This and attendant documents (the “Paris Agreements”) mandated the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to demobilize most of Cambodia’s various armed forces and establish direct control over key sectors of its various existing administrative organizations in order to create a neutral political environment for UN-organized elections, which were held in May 1993.

During the UNTAC period, several of the 12 individuals profiled here were implicated in SOC political violence, which included political killings, targeting FUNCINPEC and other non-violent political opponents and aimed at ensuring a CPP victory in the UN elections that were held in May 1993. According to one UNTAC report, SOC was responsible for 39 incidents of “killing of political opponents” that resulted in a total of 46 “casualties,” as well as 25 “killings, the primary purpose of which is to intimidate the civilian population and other summary executions” that resulted in a total of 40 “casualties.” The report listed hundreds of other cases of SOC abuses, including enforced disappearances and torture. The numbers in the report understate the extent of the violations because UNTAC could not investigate all cases or specify who was responsible in all of the cases it did investigate.[2]

FUNCINPEC nevertheless outpolled the CPP in the elections, but CPP elements led by Hun Sen threatened to violently oppose the election results and, on this basis, successfully demanded from the UN the formation of a FUNCINPEC-CPP coalition with Prince Ranariddh as first prime minister and Hun Sen as second prime minister. The different titles meant little, as each had the same legal powers.

Abuses since UNTAC (1993-Present)

After the departure of UNTAC in 1993, CPP political violence flared again, including against media critics and the new opposition Khmer Nation Party led by former FUNCINPEC finance minister Sam Rainsy, who was the target of a number of assassination attempts. The 1993 coalition arrangement lasted until July 1997, when Hun Sen ousted Prince Ranariddh in a coup.

Many of the 12 are implicated in the 1993-1998 political violence, notably Kun Kim, Chap Pheakdey, Chea Man, Bun Seng, Choeun Sovantha, Neth Savoeun, and Sao Sokha. Most played important roles in the July 5-6, 1997 coup by Hun Sen against then first Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh and his royalist FUNCINPEC party, which resulted in more than 100 mostly royalist opposition party members being summarily executed. An August 1997 report by the UN human rights office in Cambodia documented 41 and “possibly up to 60 politically-motivated extrajudicial executions” after the coup.[3] Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, later said that there were dozens of other instances of summary killings, murders, and disappearances after the coup.

The killings sent opposition politicians and activists into exile in fear for their lives. Although most politicians returned under a deal brokered by Japan, the United States, and the UN to participate in elections in July 1998, the electoral process was violent and fundamentally flawed.

The 1997 coup and 1998 ballot were followed by further CPP-manipulated national assembly elections in 2003, 2008, and 2013, which the CPP claimed to have won by greater or lesser margins and in the course of which CPP neutralized FUNCINPEC, rendering it politically moribund. This, however, did not end electoral and popular challenges to Hun Sen and the CPP’s political dominance, nor stem their growing reliance for power on economic practices characterized by elite land-grabbing and exploitation of low-wage factory workers. From 1998 to 2008, challenges to Hun Sen and the CPP were in political party terms increasingly represented by the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). In social terms, they were increasingly manifest in protests against loss of land and housing and mostly trade union-led strikes for better pay and working conditions.

In 2012, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, leader of the Human Rights Party, joined forces to create the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to compete with the CPP in the 2013 elections. These elections were characterized by systemic irregularities and were neither free nor fair. The CPP claimed a narrow victory that has kept Hun Sen in power.

The Impossibility of Democratic Reform with Politicized Security Forces

Hun Sen and the CPP are increasingly reliant on the 12 commanders – and many other senior security personnel in the army, gendarmerie, and police – who are the subject of this report. This trend was confirmed and highlighted by a significant increase at the 2015 CPP Congress of the number of security force officers and other government officials with security responsibilities in the CPP Central Committee (see Appendix 1). By Human Rights Watch’s calculation, at least 80 such officials were added. At the CPP Congress in January 2018, held to adopt party plans for the 2018 national elections, there was another large insertion of security force personnel, among whom are 64 military officers, mostly of lieutenant general rank, according to documents seen by Human Rights Watch.[4]

Hun Sen has declared his “absolute determination” to maintain order and political stability in Cambodia so he can become prime minister again after national elections scheduled for 2018.[5] Given their past record and current positions, Hun Sen can rely upon these 12 commanders and their subordinates to commit human rights abuses whenever it is considered necessary, including for their own power and economic interests. This danger should be viewed both in light of their long records of violating human rights and in the context of the 2013 national elections and those scheduled for 2018. The 2013 elections were followed by peaceful mass protests against CPP-orchestrated fraud and a new wave of large-scale strikes by workers for higher wages. Aggressive attempts by the security forces to deter and suppress such gatherings sometimes precipitated social unrest, to which the security forces responded with excessive violence, including unnecessary lethal force resulting in the deaths of at least seven people in early 2014. The CPP condemned the protests and strikes as a CNRP plot to foment a “color revolution.” Since then Hun Sen and the CPP have launched an escalating campaign of human rights violations targeting the CNRP and Cambodian media and civil society, claiming this is necessary to prevent any “color revolution” that it says might otherwise occur in connection with the 2018 elections, including as a result of protests against fraud.

This report begins with a detailed history of the three main components of the contemporary Cambodian security forces—the army, gendarmerie, and police—tracing the development of their chains of command. This is followed by 12 individual profiles. The report concludes with recommendations for security sector reform in Cambodia addressed to the Cambodian government, the United Nations, and donors and other governments. These recommendations are made in light of the failures of previous efforts by the international community in this area, but with the recognition that security sector reform is crucial for promoting and protecting human rights in Cambodia. If the security forces are not professionalized and key abusers are not appropriately held to account, there is little possibility of democratic reform – or indeed any kind of structural reform – in Cambodia.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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