Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, stands at the International Airport of Phnom Penh as he travels to Singapore for the 32nd ASEAN Summit, in Phnom Penh, April 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, stands at the International Airport of Phnom Penh as he travels to Singapore for the 32nd ASEAN Summit, in Phnom Penh, April 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s chief bodyguard has become the latest casualty in souring relations between Cambodia and America, with the US Treasury Department sanctioning him for various human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The US Treasury sanction, issued on June 12, identified General Hing Bun Hieng as “the leader of an entity involved in serious human rights abuse.” The decision freezes Bun Hieng’s US-based assets and prohibits American entities from engaging in business with him.

Bun Hieng, a deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of Hun Sen’s notoriously ruthless bodyguard unit, was implicated in a series of violent attacks in Cambodia beginning in 1997.

“Bun Hieng and the [Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit] have been connected to incidents where military force was used to menace gatherings of protesters and the political opposition going back at least to 1997,” the US Treasury release says.

The sanction is the latest diplomatic salvo fired between the two countries, which have been sparring over the deterioration of Cambodia’s democracy, including last year’s court-ordered dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and a clampdown on US organizations and media in the country.

Cambodia’s anti-democratic lurch has coincided in with growing ties to China, witnessed in a surge in Chinese aid and investments. Critics say the regional superpower has emboldened Hun Sen’s slide towards full authoritarianism, as he no longer must rely on Western donor assistance that often comes with requirements for openness and accountability.

The US Treasury Department statement directly implicates Bun Hieng in the infamous 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally led by opposition politician Sam Rainsy. The attack left 16 dead and over 120 wounded, including a US national. Rainsy, a dual French citizen, only survived because his own bodyguard shielded him from one of the grenades.

Medics shown in a file photo dated March 30, 1997 lifting the body of one of those killed during a grenade attack on a group of anti-government demonstrators outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh. The attack left at least 16 people dead and over 100 injured. Photo: AFP/David Van Der Veen 

The Treasury Department’s decision to explicitly link Bun Hieng to the grenade attack is a groundbreaking development. Both the FBI and French government have long investigated the incident, but neither have released conclusive findings.

The Treasury Department also condemned the bodyguard unit’s involvement in violently breaking up protests in 2013 and 2015. In the latter incident, members of the unit viciously beat two opposition parliamentarians, one of which held dual American-Cambodian citizenship. Three bodyguards were charged and convicted, but only served one year in prison and all were promoted upon their release.

When asked about these promotions in 2017, Bun Hieng threatened a local Phnom Penh Post reporter, calling him an “inciter” and telling him to “be careful.”

In its original form, the Magnitsky Act only applied to Russian officials but was expanded to include any political official in 2016. Bun Hieng is the first Cambodian to be designated under the act.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to the targeted sanction with typical outrage, calling it a “flagrant violation of international principles of sovereign equality.” Bun Hieng also denied having any assets or business interests in America.

The ministry statement also rejected any accusation that Bun Hieng or the army had been involved in any human rights abuses, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The statement called the sanction “politically motivated” and contrary to the spirit of cooperation between the two countries, while simultaneously implying the US is attempting a foreign invasion of Cambodia.

“It is a general understanding that General Hing Bun Hieng as well as the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit had contributed significantly to the maintenance of peace, stability and social order especially in the defense of independence an territorial integrity from foreign invasion,” the ministry release said.

In recent years, the Cambodian government has repeatedly made vague and sometimes wild accusations that the US was attempting to foment a “color” revolution to topple Hun Sen’s government.

CNRP President Kem Sokha, the country’s top opposition leader, was arrested last September on charges of treason for allegedly conspiring with America to overthrow the government.

In contrast, Hun Sen presents himself as the protector of peace and stability, often claiming to have saved the country from the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime that killed a quarter of the country’s population. He frequently warns that civil war would break out if he were ever removed from power, a warning that doubles as a threat.

In an email Wednesday, CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy expressed his gratitude for the decision. “Thank you America!” he wrote, adding that “many more” should receive similar punishment. Rainsy went on to claim that Hun Sen is considering “eliminating” Bun Hieng because the general has become a liability.

While he has made this claim before, Rainsy has not offered any concrete evidence and may simply be attempting to sow confusion within Hun Sen’s inner circle. Rainsy even suggested Hun Sen is afraid of Bun Hieng “striking first.”

Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

Ear Sophal, associate professor of world affairs and diplomacy at Occidental College, said the sanction is a significant step that shows the US means business in its diplomatic campaign against Cambodia’s anti-democratic crackdown.

“I do think the gloves have come off though in doing this. The gauntlet has been thrown and the US has decided: no more Mr. Nice Guy,” he said in an email.

Sophal said targeted sanctions against the general was “low hanging fruit” and wasn’t a definitive indicator that more government officials would be sanctioned.

“The rap sheet is a mile long,” he said of Bun Hieng’s various violations. Nevertheless, the decision could “cause panic among the Cambodian elites” who fear they could be targeted next, he said.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said that with the US keen to penalize Hun Sen’s crackdown that the sanction “should come as no surprise.” “Moreover there will likely be more Cambodian government officials to be hit with US sanctions,” he speculated.

Both the US Senate and the House of Representatives have also introduced legislation that, if passed, will impose asset freezes on individuals associated with undermining Cambodian democracy. The government has already issued visa bans against certain officials, although no names have been publicly released.

Chambers said unless Bun Hieng possessed diplomatic immunity, the sanctions are not a question of sovereignty. He did, however, say there were certain inconsistencies in America’s approach to Cambodia.

“The fact is that the US seems to currently turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Vietnam and North Korea,” Chambers said. “The real problem for the US in Cambodia is geopolitical: Washington is frustrated with Hun Sen’s extreme tilt toward China.”