Cambodia’s security forces are illegally campaigning for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a rights group said Thursday, ahead of a general election this month that has been widely derided as unfree and unfair amid an ongoing political crackdown in the country.
Military officers, gendarmes, and police officers have been stumping for the CPP in violation of Cambodia’s law requiring political neutrality, New York-based Human Rights Watch said, since the country’s campaign period for the July 29 ballot began over the weekend.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years.
The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha, as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP stays in power in Cambodia following the general election.
But even with the ban in place against the CNRP, the ruling party still feels the need to deploy senior members of the security forces to publicly endorse Hun Sen, Human Rights Watch said, in violation of Article 9 of the Law on the General Status of Military Personnel of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).
According to the clause, “military personnel shall be neutral in their functions and work activities, and the use of functions/titles and the state’s materials for any political activities shall be prohibited.”
“To win a sham election, it is not enough for the ruling CPP to ban the opposition, control all election institutions and maintain a chokehold on the media,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Apparently the CPP thinks it also needs to deploy some of the country’s most feared generals to campaign and intimidate people into going to the polls.”
Human Rights Watch said officials campaigning for the CPP include Gen. Sao Sokha, acting supreme commander of the Cambodian military; Gen. Hing Bun Heang, the head of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit who was recently sanctioned for rights violations by the U.S. under the Global Magnitsky Act; and Lt. Gen. Rat Sreang, deputy commander of the national gendarmerie, or military police, and commander of the Phnom Penh gendarmerie.
The group said it had also received reports of other senior members of the security forces campaigning for Hun Sen and the CPP before the July 7 campaign period began, in violation of Cambodian law.
Among those involved in campaigning outside of the official period were Hun Sen’s son Gen. Hun Manet, who was recently promoted to acting commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF); Gen. Meas Sophea, deputy commander in chief of RCAF; Chap Pheakdey, deputy army commander and Brigade 911 commander; Kun Kim, RCAF deputy supreme commander; Pol Saroeun, RCAF supreme commander; and Chuon Sovan, National Police deputy supreme commissioner.
The list of candidates for the CPP also includes active-duty high-ranking military, gendarmerie, and police officers who Human Rights Watch said in a recent report have helped maintain Hun Sen’s rule since he became prime minister in 1985.
The group noted that international guidelines promulgated in 2016 by the Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights state that “the non-involvement of judges, prosecutors, police, military, and auditors of political competitors in their official capacity in electoral campaigning is of essential importance,” and say measures should ensure official neutrality throughout the entire electoral processes.
“Basic democratic principles require the political neutrality of the military and police for elections to be free, fair, and credible,” Adams said.
“But nothing about this election is democratic, so it is hardly a surprise that the CPP is using senior commanders as ruling party campaigners. Foreign governments that have poured billions of dollars into Cambodia over the past decades to promote democracy should protest this blatant abuse of the electoral process.”
When contacted by RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak refused to comment on Human Rights Watch’s statement.
Spokespersons for the National Election Committee—the country’s top electoral body—and Sok Eysan, spokesperson for the CPP, were not immediately available for comment.
Human Rights Watch’s statement came a week after Cambodia’s minister of defense Tea Banh banned military officers from using security vehicles and equipment to campaign ahead of the election.
NGOs had welcomed Tea Banh’s directive and called on authorities to enforce it, noting that in past elections, military vehicles and equipment were used to campaign despite similar bans, with offenders removing insignias so that members of the public did not know whether they belonged to the government or the security forces.
Ahead of 2013’s general election, NGOs slammed unfair competition during the campaign period, saying government officials and civil servants had used state resources while stumping for their party.
Last month, election observers accused Hun Sen of acting in breach of Cambodia’s electoral laws by urging people to vote for him in the upcoming general ballot outside of the official campaign period.
Hun Sen has called for Cambodians to support him at the polls at nearly every public appearance he has made—including while speaking at events for factory workers, students, and civil servants—despite a law that allows campaigning only between July 7 and 27.