I met General Chap Pheakdei for the first and only time in July 1997. It was about a week after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s coup against Funcinpec. I was with the U.N. human rights office then, and we were working around the clock investigating widespread cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture. Bodies were turning up all over the place. One man’s body I helped dig up was dressed only in underpants. He was handcuffed behind his back and had a bullet in his head.
July 1997 was a month of corpses, enough to make many of us numb.
The coup was opposed by senior CPP figures, so it was an a la carte affair in which Mr. Hun Sen used willing elements of the army, the police, and the gendarmerie.
One of the willing soldiers was Chap Pheakdei, the commander of the Indonesian-trained parachute Brigade 911, which was involved in the violent suppression of protests by garment workers last week.
After the coup, the U.N. received reports that dozens of people were being unlawfully detained and tortured at the 911 base west of Phnom Penh International Airport. Many were forced to drink from the same swamp into which they urinated and defecated.
According to a U.N. report on human rights abuses at Brigade 911 after the coup: “The torture involved beatings with a belt, the wooden leg of a table, a wooden plank, kicking with combat boots and the knees, punches in the face and the body. It also involved death threats, by pointing the end of a gun against the head and threatening to shoot. An iron vice was also used on several detainees, to squeeze their fingers or hands until they responded satisfactorily. They were tortured to obtain intelligence, extract confessions and make them sign a statement of guilt prepared on a standard model. They were forced to…admit that there was a plan underway by Funcinpec to conspire against the CPP; to confess that they were Khmer Rouge soldiers brought from Pailin or Anlong Veng; and to confess that they had been brought to Phnom Penh to fight Hun Sen.”
The detainees realized quickly that their interrogators were not interested in finding the truth but wanted solely to obtain certain responses. As one of them explained, in words echoed by others: “They asked me whether I was a Khmer Rouge from Pailin or Anlong Veng. If I responded that I was not a Khmer Rouge, then they beat me up. So I had to admit to avoid being beaten. They also asked me what was the purpose of the war we were pursuing and who did we want to kill. The expected response was ‘Hun Sen.’ The more you resisted the more you would be tortured.”
A detainee undergoing interrogation saw another detainee being interrogated in the room next to his. The interrogators forced the man’s head in a bucket of water until he fainted and defecated on himself. Ten days after their release, several of the tortured detainees still had clear marks of blows on the back, shoulders, and arms.
After interviewing some of the released detainees, four Cambodian colleagues and I from the U.N. human rights office went to the 911 base to investigate further. It was then that I met Chap Pheakdei. When I asked him about these allegations, Chap Pheakedei first strongly denied that any detainees had been held at 911. But within minutes he changed his story, admitting that some had been held but disclaiming any knowledge of what had happened to them or when they had been released.
Then a farcical scene played out. One of the U.N. team saw a wooden storage hut that matched the description we had received from detainees. We walked to the hut and knocked on the door. A person locked inside answered. We all heard his voice, yet Chap Pheakedei insisted there was no one there. We told him we would not leave until the man was produced. Chap Pheakedei then said that, yes, a man was in there, but the person with the key had left and we should come back the next day. Fearing for the man’s life, we said no.
A three-hour standoff ensued. It was now dark. Chap Pheakdei’s forces were overheard in Khmer referring to the U.N. staff on their hand-held radios, asking, “Should we fry these fish?” The response was, “These fish are too big to fry.” My Cambodian staff only told me about this conversation later, on our way home, saying they didn’t want to worry me.
I was amazed by their courage, holding their ground knowing that any minute the order could come to have them killed. Only when the head of the gendarmerie arrived was the detainee released and re-turned safely home.
Brigade 911 has been accused of a litany of abuses in the years since. But instead of removing Chap Pheakedei from the military or prosecuting him and his subordinates, Chap Pheakedei has been promoted. He is even a member of the CPP Central Committee. Such are the rewards for being one of Mr. Hun Sen’s most loyal commanders. It thus came as no surprise when I learned that Brigade 911 had attacked protesters. Chap Pheakedei and 911 have long shown themselves to be willing to use violence for political purposes.
The public has the right to know who ordered Brigade 911 to be deployed last week.
Did Chap Pheakdei make this decision on his own? This seems unlikely, but it is a question that should be addressed as part of a wider independent investigation into last week’s events. That investigation should also examine why the gendarmerie fired into crowds, who gave those orders, and why 23 people were detained for days without information about their whereabouts or access to counsel or medical care.
There is a wider problem. Military units in Cambodia and elsewhere are not trained to deal with protests and should not be deployed for crowd control. Donors and countries such as the U.S., which have relations with the Cambodian military, should demand the end of the use of the army for political reasons.
Instead of banning demonstrations, donors should insist that the government respect the rights of workers or the political opposition to freedom of assembly, association and expression, including those who were encamped at Freedom Park.
If crowd control measures are necessary, this should be the job of the police, not the army or paramilitary force like the gendarmerie.
Will the government authorize an independent investigation that follows responsibility wherever the trail leads, even if it points to the military leadership or the government? Sadly, this is unlikely. While impunity flourishes among the Cambodian leadership, a willingness to address it is nowhere in sight.
Brad Adams is the Asia director at Human Rights Watch