Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen

Given the serious accusations of involvement in corruption, torture and extra-judicial killings by senior members of the Cambodian security in this Human Rights Watch report, is it not surprising that the Government reaction has been so muted? 

Human Rights Watch recently produced a detailed report on twelve senior generals of the Cambodian Army, Gendarmarie and Police forces.  They added the provocative title “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen”.

It is clear that Brad Adams has taken meticulous care to amass a wealth of detailed information concerning the structural links between Cambodia’s Security Services and the Prime Minister.  These links are both direct through personal friendship and indirect through the Central Committee of the Cambodian People’s Party.  There is a brief but precise historical presentation of the evolution of the Cambodian security apparatus from the fall of the Khmer Rouge Regime in 1979 until the present. The political crises that followed each election result since 1993 are presented in a clear and historically accurate manner.  Some of these crucial events are recorded with the numbers and names of the senior people involved.  In particular, the cruel torture and extra-judicial executions that followed the 1997 “coup” by the CPP party against its coalition partner, the FUNCINPEC party, is recalled in chilling detail.  This general historical presentation is then followed by historical profiles of twelve of the key figures leading this sophisticated and complex Cambodian security apparatus.  There is a clear effort to protect Cambodian sources.

In conclusion, given the clear failure to follow the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) procedures in relation to the separation of powers, the report recommends a complete overall of the Governance of the Security Apparatus in Cambodia.  It further recommends that the signatories to the Paris peace agreement in 1991 hold the Cambodian government and these senior security figures to account by means of sanctions and visa restrictions.

Following this meticulously researched report, I would like to offer the following personal reflections for what they are worth in an effort to understand more deeply what is actually happening in Cambodia.

Given the serious accusations of involvement in corruption, torture and extra-judicial killings by senior members of the Cambodian security in this Human Rights Watch report, is it not surprising that the Government reaction has been so muted?  The Government reaction to the report on official collusion of the security forces in deforestation by the NGO Global Witness a few years provoked a much more immediate and vitriolic response than in this case. If a Cambodian was asked to comment on this difference in reaction, he or she might recall an old Khmer proverb which says that “a mother tiger only shows her claws when her cubs are threatened”.

So while this report may be accurate in all its details, it is possible that its focus is skewed so that it cannot “see the forest for the trees”.  (Pardon the pun).

In the introduction, the purpose of the report emerges clearly by the reference to the former leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.  There is a clear intention to compare the present Cambodian Prime Minister to the former leader of Zimbabwe as if the two were “of a kind” or “like to like”.  It is clear that Human Rights Watch believes that there is enough evidence to warrant such a comparison.  The report does not intend to blacken anyone’s name but simply intends to report the truth.

However only a short reflection is needed to see how exaggerated this comparison really is. Robert Mugabe has led his country into economic meltdown and his party henchmen have been involved in murder and mayhem on an unprecedented scale.  It is possible that more than a hundred thousand people have been killed directly or indirectly through his misrule.  In Cambodia, on the other hand, the economy is still growing brusquely and the numbers killed during the political violence over the last few years have numbered in the hundreds rather than the hundred thousands.  Most Cambodians are still able to go about their ordinary lives in peace and safety with the hope that their children’s lives will be more comfortable, happier and fulfilled than their own.  This is not an insignificant difference between the two regimes.

Is it not also surprising, given such a vicious group of army and police generals in complete control of the Cambodian security apparatus, that the persecution of political opponents is not more severe? I do not mean to deny for a minute, the increased surveillance and control of the media nor to diminish the injustice of the sham trials nor the horrors of Cambodian prisons.  Yet the jailed political opposition members emerge for their trials in one piece and do not show signs of terrible torture.  Since the election result was announced, many have received royal pardons and been released.  In other words, I am suggesting that there is a “softness” or “compassion” in the behavior of the officials in charge of the security apparatus that is not accounted for by the Human Rights Watch report. The social reality that it attempts to describe is more complicated than it appears at first sight.

Two avenues of research that could be pursued later by the authors of the report would be the links to the Vietnamese security apparatus and the business interests of the twelve generals.  For example, the report details how three of these generals received extensive training in Vietnam. This training included interrogation techniques, maintaining law and order, managing political dissent and ensuring internal security.  There is no reason to suppose that logistical support and management from Vietnam does not continue to the present day.  The report did not detail any of the business interests of the generals.  Such a list of the business interests might reveal a wide network of rich Cambodian business men and women engaged in legal and illegal commercial activities.  This network would include all the powerful rich Cambodian families who both compete and cooperate together to amass wealth for their children.

I once read an interesting reflection on the social structures of the societies of South-East Asia which postulated that these societies are governed in essence by a collection of rich and powerful families who are continually competing and cooperating with each other to amass wealth and to keep it among themselves.  There was an interesting observation about Thailand to say that among the whole population of then about 70 million, less than two hundred thousand invested in the stock exchange.  It could be argued that this collective elite of powerful families constitutes an oligarchy which is quite content to avail itself of the advantages of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law as long as these do not threaten their business interests.  But once these interests are threatened, then the army generals are called on to “restore order”.

There is an interesting geographical parallel to this thesis of centralized power to say that each of the countries of South East Asia has only one large city and many small satellite towns.  For example, Thailand has Bangkok, Indonesia has Jakarta, the Philippines has Manila, Malaysia has Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar has Yangon, Laos has Vientiane and Cambodia has Phnom Penh.  Vietnam might be the exception that proves the rule in that is has two large cities, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.

The Human Rights Watch report also refers explicitly to the assassinations in broad daylight of the environmentalist Chut Wutty in 2012 and the political analyst Kem Lay in 2016.  However the report does not analyse the pattern underlying these political assassinations that started perhaps with the assassination of the Khmer classical dancer, Piseth Pileka, in 1999.  The long list of brutal assassinations would include the gentle democrat, Om Radsady in 2003, the trade unionists Chea Vichea in 2004 and Hy Vuthy in 2007 and at least ten others.  The pattern deserves research and comment.


However despite this pattern of violent behavior and contrary to the perspective of the Human Rights Watch report, I do not believe that the Prime Minister is trying to hold onto power for either himself or the CPP party. That is not what he is about at all.  I believe that he is simply trying to ensure that his sons have as much political and economic power as he can possibly bequeath to them. In this context, he is behaving like a normal Cambodian parent. It appears however, that the other powerful families and members of the CPP party are resisting arrangements for a family succession.  Such an arrangement would upset the oligarchic nature of the CPP power structure.  This resistance is not visible and it is not a “passive” resistance like we would understand in the West.  I would call it more a “karmic” resistance.  This means that senior party figures will allow themselves to be used and manipulated as “puppets” without thereby becoming puppets.  They are simply waiting for the end of the violent and bloody civil war which has plagued Cambodia since independence. In this sense, the present Prime Minister may be the last of a species.

As an example of what I mean by “karmic” resistance, one could recall the reaction of the families of those 40+ Funcipec officials who were tortured and executed after their capture during the “coup” in 1997.  Most of these men were officers or administrators who returned to Cambodia in good faith after the Paris peace agreement was signed in 1991.  They held various posts in a CPP dominated security apparatus.  Their murders were a betrayal of everything that the peace agreement represented.  However after these violent deaths, their families conducted themselves in a dignified and peaceful manner indicating clearly that they understood that some senior members of the CPP party were horrified by what had happened and refused to participate in it.  These families, by and large, did not flee Cambodia.  They are still waiting for a peaceful Cambodia. My intuition is that this “karmic” resistance is now so deep and widespread among CPP members that it can account for the “softness” and “compassion” in the actions of those in charge of the security apparatus.

The two sons of the Prime Minister mentioned in the report have established good reputations along their career paths and maintain friendly relations with most of the other powerful families even those of the opposing faction.  They also enjoy friendly relations with many of the senior opposition figures and their families.  While they might mouth rhetoric similar to their father, their words do not seem to carry the same venom.  It is always possible that a “Corleone” godfather style transformation may take place later but it seems unlikely.   These men belong to a younger generation who want to end the bloody civil war and stop Cambodians killing Cambodians.  In this sense, it does not matter where the next leader comes from as long as the violence ends.

The Human Rights Watch report correctly analyses the disputed results and disappointed hopes of the opposition party members after each election.   However it is perhaps important to note the enthusiastic, raucous and joyful participation of huge numbers of Cambodians in the election campaigns across all the political parties before these results were finally announced.  This was particularly true of the campaign for the commune and municipal elections in 2017.  This campaign reached into the most remote villages of Cambodia involving the people in a real political choice which was openly debated even among family members.  Large numbers of campaigners criss-crossed the countryside often exchanging good-natured banter with each other along the way.   There was little sign of political violence or intimidation among the local participants.  The local people seemed to enjoy the experience of discussing the issues affecting the development of their village, province and country.  These issues included corruption, injustice, economic mismanagement, sanitation, infra-structure, transparency and accountability etc.   The joy and hopes shared by all participants during this campaign indicate clearly the desire by the rank and file of all parties for a level playing field in political terms.  It was precisely when the results of this election threatened the CPP control of the communes that the legal elimination of the CNRP was orchestrated from on high.  The parliamentary election campaign without the CNRP in July 2018 was perhaps the most joyless and lifeless campaign since 1993.

So the Human Rights Watch report is correct in suggesting that this is make or break time for the future of democracy in Cambodia.  However my sense is that the twelve generals may not really be important at all.  They could disappear with the floods.  The future of Cambodia is slowly passing into the hands of the next generation of young Khmer from the existing network of rich families.  They may pull a few surprises out of the hat if their families can agree to support their compromises. I suggest that the Human Rights Watch report is incorrect in predicting a descent into a long-term military dictatorship. That would not be good for business.



Author: gaudiummundi

After twenty-seven years on Mission in Cambodia, teaching Mathematics and Philosophy, running Student Hostels and helping in parishes, I have finally returned to Ireland. Now I am back where my Jesuit journey started at Manresa House in Dollyount on the north side of Dublin where I will help the Spirituality Team. The old enemy's sea scout den is close by. (5th Port Dollymount vs 9th Port Malahide!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s