Cambodia: Concerns over human rights arise after minister’s violent threat
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Cambodia: Concerns over human rights arise after minister’s violent threat

CAMBODIA’S social affairs minister should be fired following his “outrageous remarks” threatening protestors and ordering loyalty from civil servants, which demonstrate “he knows nothing about either human rights or democracy,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director said on Wednesday.

Phil Robertson called for the resignation of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Minister Vong Sauth after comments he made at a ceremony in Phnom Penh to promote ministry officials.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, Sauth said on Monday all civil servants must support the Cambodian People’s Party or resign from their jobs, and warned the government will use bamboo rods to bludgeon anyone who protests after next year’s election – invoking troubling comparisons to methods used during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge.

“At the election this time, if there is the issue of protests again, the bottom end of the bamboo will hit their heads, and they will not be allowed to have the right to protest,” he said, adding the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) could make laws to let it do so.

Robertson condemned Sauth’s remarks in a written statement, claiming he is “clearly unfit for a job promoting social welfare” when he condones the beating of anyone who expresses difference of opinion with the government and airs their grievances in protest.

He also questioned his calls for loyalty from civil servants.

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“He shows his ignorance of modern democratic principles when he fails to recognise in a democracy. Politicians are elected to make decisions on law and policy, but the civil servants have different duties, such as carrying out the day-to-day functions of government in an impartial and professional way,” Robertson said, as reported by Radio Free Asia.

He said threatening civil servants who don’t back the ruling party and groups that comment on electoral politics “is a dictator’s logic” that coerces the public into following orders. It violates Cambodia’s international obligations to protect rights such as freedom of speech, association and peaceful public assembly, says Robertson.

Robertson claimed the minister had “besmirched Cambodia’s already poor international reputation, and confirmed what many people are saying – that Cambodia has slid well into dictatorship even before the votes are cast in 2018.”

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Sauth’s remarks are the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive rhetoric coming from the ruling CPP in the lead-up to next year’s election, with fears the government is giving up all pretence of remaining peaceful.

Similar rhetoric ahead of June’s commune elections this year drew condemnation from election watchdogs, who said it had created an atmosphere of intimidation.

“We can remember clearly a few months ago the defence minister talked about smashing people’s teeth,” opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy told The Phnom Penh Post.

“Now Vong Sauth is talking about smashing people’s heads with bamboo, this is a threat against the people.”

Robertson’s remarks coincide with an announcement from the United Nations that Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Rhona Smith, will visit the country on Aug 8.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades and has shown no signs of wanting to relinquish power.