Lieutenant General Hun Manet (L) and Military Police chief Sao Sokha (R) pray during a ground breaking ceremony at the Ministry of National Defense in Phnom Penh, June 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia took a big step closer to becoming a dictatorial, one-party, military-dominated state with the announcement last month that several military men would run in the July 29 national election for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Some of these candidates were labelled Cambodia’s “Dirty Dozen” in a recent Human Rights Watch report that highlighted some of the “systematic human rights violations” allegedly committed by the men in uniform.

Human Rights Watch said Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling CPP have long benefitted from the support of senior officials in the army, gendarmerie and police. The report claimed this group of men helped to eliminate all the government’s political opponents and dissolve the main opposition party, rendering the upcoming elections meaningless.

According to local media reports, candidates contesting the national elections include Pol Saroeun, a four-star general and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) commander-in-chief, who will run as a candidate in the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk, an area which has recently seen a massive influx of Chinese investment.

Two other four-star generals, Meas Sophea and Kun Kim, both deputy commanders-in-chief of the RCAF, will contest the seats in Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces, respectively.

General Chey Son, the secretary general of Cambodia’s National Authority for Chemical Weapons, will run as the third candidate in Svay Rieng province, while Lieutenant General Dy Vichea, the deputy chief of the National Police and who is also Hun Sen’s son-in-law, will be a reserve candidate in Svay Rieng.

There are also many other candidates from the military and police who will be running for seats or have been nominated as reserve candidates.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who many think is being groomed to take over some time after the July 29 elections. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan told The Phnom Penh Post that the decision to nominate senior military and police officers have been made in the best interests of the country and people.

“The party [CPP] wants to put up candidates from all fields to serve the country and people,” he told the newspaper, adding that all those nominated had already taken leave of their jobs and no longer received salaries from the state and were on the CPP’s payroll.

“Those who are working in public or government positions cannot be nominated as representative candidates unless they leave their jobs. This is the democracy inside the [CPP].”

Despite having to hang up their uniforms temporarily to run, Hun Sen, who became one of the world’s five longest-serving autocrats since the fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, had a simple solution to losing some of his top men in uniform: he elevated one of the “Dirty Dozen” and promoted his eldest son and possible heir.

General Sao Sokha, the former deputy commander of RCAF, has taken over as commander-in-chief position from General Pol Saroeun, while Hun Manet was promoted to deputy commander-in-chief and acting commander of the Infantry Unit, replacing General Mes Sophea, another election candidate. General Sao Sokha and General Pol Saroeun are both members of Human Rights Watch’s “Dirty Dozen.”

Political analyst Meas Nee told The Phnom Penh Post newspaper he believed it was a CPP strategy to strengthen military power in the legislature.

“I guess it is part of the strategy to replace these elders or old-aged generals with those who might be sympathetic to Hun Manet in the army ranks,” Nee told the newspaper. “It might also be possible to have more army generals in the parliament so that the structure of militarism can be expanded into the National Assembly and, in such a case, the army will have some power over parliamentarians.”

Army vehicles are seen along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 11, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, see the moves differently. “It’s musical chairs. They need to taste political power and have their military epaulettes taken by the family of the prime minister. Clearly though, they’re not being put out to pasture, at least, not yet,” he told Asia Times.

Human Rights Watch’s 213-page report shines a spotlight on 12 senior Cambodian security officers who they say help prop up an abusive and authoritarian political regime. The rights group says each of these officers owes his high-rank and lucrative position to political and personal connections with Hun Sen dating back two decades or more.

The report also claims each one of the dozen has shown a willingness to commit rights abuses on behalf of the prime minister. It adds that the men have served throughout their careers in government positions that paid modest official salaries, yet each of them have amassed 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, the 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.”

Cambodian soldiers patrol along a street in Phnom Penh after dispersing opposition protesters from their rally base a day after police launched a deadly crackdown on striking garment workers, January 4, 2014. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

One very recent example of a military figure openly campaigning for Hun Sen came on June 28 when Defense Minister Tea Banh urged men in uniform to vote for the CPP.

“I would like to remind soldiers and their families to vote for the CPP. It will be easy to [vote] in order to maintain peace and guarantee development. The CPP is at number 20 and there are 20 political parties competing, so it will be easy to remember as the CPP sits at the bottom [of the ballot],” local media reported him as saying while addressing soldiers and police at an event in Battambang province.

Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, told local media the following day that the National Election Committee should take action against the minister for promoting a particular party, which goes against the political neutrality of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

“The Election Law requires the armed forces and their officials to be neutral … Using a state event to talk about a party in the elections is not right,” he said. Members of the armed forces and police cannot promote political parties while in uniform, he added.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, each one of the “Dirty Dozen” is a member of the CPP’s Central Committee, the party’s highest policymaking body. This, the rights group says, is at odds with international standards which protect the rights of security forces to be members of different political parties, to vote for whom they choose and privately express their opinions.

In Cambodia, it seems, the standards are different.

Alan Parkhouse is a former Editor-in-Chief of both The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times.

The full Human Rights Watch report on Cambodia’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ can be found here

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