Thirteen Interior Ministry officials have become the latest government officials to be assigned honorifics after a Royal Decree bestowed on them with the title of “Sante Bandit”, which loosely translates to “Doctor of Peace”, a designation met with consternation by activists, observers and the opposition yesterday.
The diktat, signed by acting head of state Say Chhum on Monday, gives prominent ministry officials, such as National Police chief Neth Savoeun, ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak and prisons director Chan Kimseng, the newly created title.
“[The] Creation of title of Sante Bandit of the Police Academy of Cambodia is for leaders of the Interior Ministry who have received honourable doctorate certificates in the field of security and public order,” the decree reads.
The list also includes prominent secretaries of state Em Sam An and Ouk Kimlek, former prisons director Heng Hak and head of the identification department Mao Chandara.
Reached yesterday, Kimlek said the titles were the government’s recognition of the hard work put in by the honourees, and would be an inspiration to future generations.
“It is also encouragement for the authorities to crack down on colour revolutions and attempts to topple the government,” he said, invoking a term used to refer to nonviolent protest movements that have toppled several authoritarian regimes, but more often used by Cambodian security officials to refer to purported threats to the CPP-led government.
Other recipients of the title could not be reached or refused to comment.
But the Neth Savoeun-led police forces have been repeatedly criticised by local and international civil society groups for their use of violence in breaking up mostly peaceful demonstrations and protests by land rights activists, NGOs and garment workers.
In one incident, dozens of police personnel looked on and in some footage of the event, appeared to participate – as a wave of thugs led a violent night time crackdown on a peaceful protest organised by Boeung Kak lake activists at Wat Phnom in 2013.
The ensuing melee resulted in land activists, journalists and rights workers being shocked with electric prods and shot with marbles fired from slingshots, with the perpetrators yet to be identified.
“This shows the impunity in our country. This will encourage them to use violence because after they beat us and use violence they get promotions, honours and reputation,” said Boeung Kak activist Chan Puthisak.
Phnom Penh police officials, along with the military police and armed forces, were also involved in the violent break up of unruly garment worker protests on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard in January 2014, firing live ammunition at demonstrators and killing five of them.
CNRP lawmaker Cheam Chhany said it was inappropriate to honour and celebrate police officials whose past work was contradictory to their implied duty – protecting the Cambodian people. “This is like encouragement for those who have committed inappropriate acts. And this is encouragement we cannot support,” he said.
Political commentator Meas Ny likened the latest announcement to the promotions given to three Bodyguard Unit members who were convicted for beating up two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly in 2015.
While honorifics have been common in Cambodian society, Ny said the recent proliferation of such titles suggested an almost caste-like system, where only the loyal and privileged were rewarded by the government.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson was more blunt, calling the new titles a “charade”.
“The sad thing is these rights abusing CPP appratchiks have no idea how ridiculous these awards look to the international community,” he said.