(New York) – The commander of Cambodia’s paramilitary gendarmerie admitted using force against the opposition for political reasons, publicly invoking tactics used by Adolf Hitler, Human Rights Watch said today.
Cambodia’s donors should call for Gen. Sao Sokha, commander of the 10,000-member Royal Khmer Gendarmerie and long-time stalwart of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), to be removed from any role in the state security forces.
At a January 15, 2015, speech to the annual conference of the Phnom Penh gendarmerie, Sao Sokha praised the gendarmerie’s role in forcibly dispersing anti-government demonstrations on January 3, 2014, when they shot at workers and other protesters who resisted dispersal, killing five people. He described opposition demonstrations as a “trick of the destroyers” intended to “push Cambodia into turmoil” and bring about political change, including the fall of the CPP government.
According to a recording of his speech, Sao Sokha said that his tactics were derived from Hitler and Vietnamese guerrillas:
[S]peaking frankly, I learned from Hitler. Hitler, after Europe, after World War I, the international community – at that time there was not yet a United Nations – imposed that there be a total of only 100,000 troops. So how were Hitler and the Nazis able to marshal an army to make World War II?
Belatedly responding to public outrage, three days later, Sao Sokha denied he was an admirer of Hitler, saying he had only mentioned Hitler in order to encourage people “to learn about him and not follow him.”
“Gen. Sao Sokha’s open hostility to the political opposition is made all the more disturbing by his ‘lessons learned’ from Adolf Hitler,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It is people like Sao Sokha, with a long record of human rights abuses, that Prime Minister Hun Sen has relied upon to maintain his abusive rule in Cambodia for the past 30 years.”
At the conference, Sao Sokha said that the best approach in dealing with adversaries was to use large forces to definitively defeat smaller ones, using military doctrine to describe his approach to civilian street protesters. He explained this was a reversal of the guerrilla warfare military doctrine Cambodian armed forces had learned from Vietnamese mentors. In an apparent reference to the events of January 3, 2014, he specified that this meant the gendarmes had “attacked to wear them [the protesters] down, and when they panicked and launched counter-assaults, we concentrated to hit them, and it was over.”
A long pattern of serious rights abuses
Sao Sokha has long been implicated in serious human rights abuses. In the 1980s, as military officer of the then People’s Republic of Kampuchea, he was implicated in military detention and torture of political opponents without charge or trial. As number two in the gendarmerie command structure after UN-organized elections of 1993, he was in a position of authority over a force which UN human rights monitors documented was involved in multiple serious human rights violations and illegal business activities. He was a key member of the group of pro-Hun Sen senior officers who carried out Hun Sen’s 1997 coup d’etat, during and after which gendarme coup forces illegally detained, tortured, and executed members of the FUNCINPEC party. In view of all this, the former special representative of the UN secretary-general for human rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, recommended to the UN General Assembly in November 1997 that “unless the Royal Gendarmerie is strictly and effectively brought under the rule of law, made to observe strict neutrality when carrying out its mandate, and demonstrates its professional effectiveness, it should be dismantled.”
Under Sao Sokha, the gendarmerie has been systematically abusive. It played a crucial role in the violent suppression of opposition party protests against alleged fraud in the 1998 Cambodian national elections. For example, UN investigators identified gendarmes as the perpetrators of the torture and execution of two detainees.
Since Sao Sokha was promoted to be Royal Gendarmerie of Cambodia (GRK) national commander in 1999, the force has frequently been involved in violently breaking up peaceful political and social protest gatherings in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Gendarmes have regularly applied excessive force in these operations, injuring, sometimes seriously, students, workers, and others. They have also repeatedly participated in violent and illegal land evictions. Since at least 2005, gendarmes have been using live fire against anti-eviction protesters and other demonstrators, including instances in which people were killed because of excessive use of force. They were involved in two notorious killings in 2012: that of environmentalist Chhut Wutthy in Koh Kong province and of a young woman shot to death during an anti-eviction protest movement in Kratie province.
The gendarmerie’s actions in Phnom Penh in January 2014 included operations forcibly preventing and violently suppressing peaceful assemblies by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was protesting the fraud-ridden July 2013 national elections, and by factory workers striking for higher pay. Throughout 2014, gendarmes continued to break up or block peaceful gatherings, marches, protests, and strikes, including CNRP events, at times using excessive force. Gendarmes also participated in often violent evictions of urban poor people from their land and homes and threatened those attempting to expose allegedly illegal gendarme business activities.
Sao Sokha’s remarks about the opposition were endorsed by Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong. Confirming that Hun Sen himself had approved the January 3, 2014 security force operations, Socheatevong said at the conference that these actions ensured that “the enemy – in other words, the opposition party,” had been unable to mobilize or support ever larger gatherings, restoring what the government considered to be social and political order.
Sao Sokha shares authority over the Phnom Penh gendarmerie with Pa Socheatevong and Phnom Penh gendarmerie commander Gen. Rat Sreang. Despite their party positions, Sokha, Socheatevong, and Sreang are legally required to be politically neutral state officials.
“Sao Sokha’s record and policy pronouncements make clear that he is incapable of political neutrality or leading the gendarmerie as anything other than a force of CPP repression,” Adams said. “Donors wanting to see genuine reform of Cambodia’s security forces should make respect for human rights and non-partisanship a requirement for all police, military, and gendarmerie commanders.”