CAMBODIAN Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for over 33 years, during which time he has ruled with an iron fist and quashed any potential competition with ease. But he didn’t do it alone.
The prolonged tenure and lofty heights of power that Hun Sen enjoys is not entirely self-made, according the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW). Rather it is the unwavering support of his brutal and committed henchmen and loyal generals that has kept the former Khmer Rouge commander in his position.
A new report from HRW singles out 12 leading generals who have carried out “serious and systematic human rights violations” in the name of furthering Hun Sen’s increasingly dictatorial rule.
“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 ahead of July’s elections, as they engage in crackdowns against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters – and openly campaign for Hun Sen.”
Among those accused is former Khmer Rouge general Pol Saroeun who made his mark running the “re-education” facility for military accused of betraying the revolution.
According to the report, such facilities were defined by “arbitrary detention bereft of judicial process and characterized by torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment carried out in military-run facilities at the national, regional, provincial and unit levels.”
Pol Saroeun was also by Hun Sen’s side when he launched his 1997 coup against royalist party Funcinpec with whom his own Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was sharing power.
Proving his mettle, the general received a promotion to the position of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Supreme Commander, where he remains today.
The report notes that, although Cambodian rights monitors signalled a drop in human rights abuses by the RCAF in the run up to the 2013 election, they are still associated with “extrajudicial killings and attempted killings, torture and other severe ill-treatment, and sometimes violent land confiscation.”
Throughout his association with Hun Sen, Pol Saroeun has remained loyal to the prime minister working to champion his cause, sing his praises to voters, and use his power as head of the RCAF to quash any dissent.
“Hun Sen relies heavily on those around him. He wouldn’t be where he is today without the support of key figures in security forces who provide a bulwark against any potential armed challenge from within or popular uprising of any kind,” author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and research affiliate at the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina, Sebastian Strangio, told Asian Correspondent.
“These individuals and these institutions have backstopped Hun Sen’s rise to power and continue to undergird his control of Cambodia today. They act as the final defence against any potential threat to his power.”
This support will prove vital in the coming weeks as Cambodia edges closer to their July 29 general election.
They have already proven instrumental in the undermining of rights and eroding the foundations of democracy as Hun Sen enters election season as the only credible contender in what is now a one-horse race.
HRW lists this unquestioning support from senior officials as the force that has enabled Hun Sen to effectively “eliminate all political opponents and dissolve the main opposition party, rendering the upcoming July 2018 national elections meaningless.”
All of the men are members of the CPP Central Committee, the party’s highest policymaking body, despite being high ranking officials of supposedly neutral and impartial authorities.
Despite being public servants on modest official salaries, each has amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth, the report points out.
There has been minimal progress in holding these men to account, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any.
Earlier this month, the United States imposed sanctions in the form of a travel ban and an asset freeze on Hun Sen’s right-hand man General Hing Bun Hieng.
Adams believes this should serve as “a wake up call” to all senior officials who violate human rights in the name of Hun Sen.
Human Rights Watch is calling for the international community to do more to hold these men to account.
“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 33 years in power. Like their boss, they need to be called out and held accountable for their many crimes.”