Updated: February 26, 2021
Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial, one-party rule is underpinned by generals in the security forces who are responsible for serious and systematic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday as it issued the Khmer-language version of its 284-page report, “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals.” Human Rights Watch also released a video showing some of the unexplained wealth of these generals and their family members.
Since the release of the English-language report in 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have continued to benefit from the unquestioning support of senior officials in the army, gendarmerie, and police to effectively eliminate all political opponents and dissolve the main opposition party, rendering the July 2018 national elections meaningless. Cambodia now has more than 50 political prisoners and dozens of others facing charges.
The report spotlights 12 senior security officers who form the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime. Since 2018, three of the 12 have been promoted and one has died.
Each of these officers owes his high-ranking and lucrative position to political and personal connections with Hun Sen dating back two decades or more. Each has demonstrated a willingness to commit rights abuses on behalf of Hun Sen. Instead of serving the public, these officials have acted to protect the rule of Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 35 years. Throughout their careers, they have served in government positions paying modest official salaries, yet they have amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “The importance of Cambodia’s generals has become even more apparent with the massive crackdown in the past two years against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters.”
Human Rights Watch has long documented Hun Sen’s egregious human rights record. Over more than three decades, 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 have been known members of the security services, in not one case has there been a credible investigation or prosecution, let alone a conviction. In some cases, triggermen or fall guys have been prosecuted, while their superiors go untouched. Security forces have also arbitrarily arrested, beaten, harassed, and intimidated many other critics of the government, including human rights workers, labor activists, land rights activists, and bloggers and others expressing their views online.
Hun Sen has orchestrated his repressive rule by promoting people based on loyalty to him instead of the military, gendarmerie, and police institutions they formally serve.
The report details the responsibility of 12 senior security force officers for human rights abuses in Cambodia from the late 1970s until the present. Below are the positions each held in 2018 and any changes since then:
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- Gen. Pol Saroeun, Supreme Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF):
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Supreme Commander by General Vong Pisen. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions.
- Gen. Kun Kim, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff:
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Deputy Supreme Commander and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff by General Ith Sarat. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions, First Vice-Chairperson of the National Committee for Disaster Management, and Secretary-General of the Cambodian Veterans Association.
- Gen. Sao Sokha, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Commander of the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie (GRK):
Still in post.
- Gen. Neth Savoeun, Supreme Commissioner of the Cambodian National Police:
Still in post.
- Lt. Gen. Chea Man, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 4:
Died on October 23, 2018 and has been replaced by Lt. Gen. Peou Heng.
- Lt. Gen. Bun Seng, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 5:
On March 1, 2019, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Defense and was replaced in Region 5 by Lt. Gen. Ek Sam-aun.
- Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 2:
Still in post.
- Lt. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, Deputy Chief of the RCAF Joint General Staff and Commander of Special Forces Paratrooper Brigade 911:
Still in post.
- Lt. Gen. Rat Sreang, Deputy Commander of the country-wide Gendarmerie and Commander of the Phnom Penh Gendarmerie:
Still in post.
- Gen. Sok Phal, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Supreme Director for Immigration:
In September 2018, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior and was replaced as Supreme Director for Immigration by Gen. Kirth Chantharith.
- Gen. Mok Chito, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Secretary-General of the National Anti-Drugs Authority:
Still in post.
- Gen. Chuon Sovan, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police:
In September 2018, he was named Vice Chairperson of the National Anti-Drugs Authority and was replaced as Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police by Lt. Gen. Sar Thet.
Although these officials have 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 have acted in an openly and highly partisan manner. Each is a member of the CPP Central Committee, the party’s highest policymaking 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 opinions. However, officials should not be politically partisan in carrying out their professional duties or favor one political party over others.
Like Hun Sen, several of these senior officials were members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which between April 1975 and January 1979 was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.2 to 2.8 million Cambodians.
Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985. Since 2015, he has been chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979. He is now among the world’s five longest-serving autocrats. In public, 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.”
“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 35 years in power. Like their boss, they need to be called out and held accountable for their many crimes.”