Celebrations attended by foreign delegates marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of Cambodia’s notorious Brigade 70, a military unit that has faced a raft of allegations ranging from protecting illegal timber traders to murder, were met with criticism yesterday.
About 1,000 soldiers were on parade at yesterday morning’s event – the first of two days of celebrations marking the October 15 anniversary – which was presided over by the country’s political and military elite: Prime Minister Hun Sen, Defence Minister Tea Banh and Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Pol Sareoun.
Addressing the crowd, Hun Sen said that he had “confidence that the RCAF, especially the Brigade Number 70, will continue implementing its role and duty … for the cause of independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, peace and development in the national society”.
Foreign delegates in attendance included a representative of the Vietnamese Defence Ministry, a delegate from the Republic of Korea, and military attaches from a number of countries, including Australia.
The US Embassy refused to comment on whether representatives of the country attended. The US has been accused of providing military aid to the unit in the past.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that attending the celebration was “the equivalent of shaking the hands of the unit that is the epitome of impunity for rights abuse in the RCAF”.
“It’s quite clear that Brigade 70 operates at the behest of its political masters as a unit that is entrusted to take hard action, including serious abuses against citizens, in pursuit of preserving the power of the CPP and its leaders,” Robertson said.
The accusations levelled against the unit include fatal crackdowns, political arrests, murder and attempted murder, almost all of which, Robertson said, have been carried out with “complete impunity”.
A 2007 report by NGO Global Witness accused the unit of running an illegal timber and contraband trafficking operation worth more than $2 million a year.
Brigade 70, which used to include Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, continues to provide security to officials and private businesses, according to Robertson.
But Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the unit has no real purpose anymore.
“It’s [part of] a formula for instability … these apparatus were created because of paranoia, but now these bodies [including Brigade 70] create more paranoia,” he said.
At an opposition rally in 1997 – the first time that Brigade 70 was deployed at a demonstration – at least 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who led the rally, said that yesterday’s event should not have taken place: “This is not appropriate, there is nothing to rejoice about.”