CAMBODIA'S gendarmerie, a special police unit set up with French aid, has come under
fire from United Nations human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg, who urged that the
5,000-man force be disbanded if it cannot be "brought under the rule of law".
Growing evidence about the police group showed that it was not only failing to fulfill
its mission, but was increasingly becoming "an agent of human rights abuses,
enjoying the same impunity as other security forces," Hammarberg said in a Nov
13 report on the state of human rights in Cambodia to the UN General Assembly.
"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," he continued.
Hammarberg noted that the gendarmerie was also "one of the most active"
of armed forces involved in the July fighting in Phnom Penh.
His statements add to long-held concerns over the gendarmerie, whose members have
repeatedly been accused of participating in crimes and human rights abuses.
Even within the French government, questions have long been raised over the wisdom
of having effectively created - and continuing to support - such an armed force in
High-level French sources revealed this week that France's repeated decisions to
maintain aid to the gendarmerie were made despite the knowledge that former secret
agents suspected of political crimes were recruited by the police unit.
Since soon after the gendarmerie's creation in 1994, French officials began receiving
reports that members of the so-called 'A-teams' - implicated by the UN in political
assassinations and intimidation during the 1993 election campaign - were being integrated
into it, according to sources.
France is known to have previously sought, under threat of withdrawing its aid, the
removal of the gendarmerie commander General Kieng Savuth, who remains in his position.
France has gradually scaled down its support to the gendarmerie, but continues to
provide training to its members.
The French Ambassador to Phnom Penh, Gildas Le Lidec, said this week that alleged
abuses by the gendarmerie were no worse than in other police or military units.
The French training will continue, he said, because to withdraw it would not help
improve the situation.
Asked about the accusations that A-team members were recruited into the gendarmerie,
the ambassador said that such people were dispersed throughout Cambodia's security
Gen Kieng Savuth, meanwhile, said this week that his unit had also abided by the
government sub-decree which establishes the corps and its code of conduct.
"But all authorities in the world cannot carry out an order one hundred percent
without making small mistakes sometimes," he said. "For my unit, we have
not made big mistakes."
Upon its creation, the gendarmerie was given powers to act as both judicial police
and military police, "principally to remedy the problem of the reluctance of
regular police to investigate crimes, carry out arrests of, and execute court orders
[against]... military personnel," according to Hammarberg.
Since then, gendarmerie members have repeatedly been accused by rights workers and
Khmer and foreign journalists of participating in crimes and political intimidation.
In Phnom Penh, the police unit has consistently been involved in police or military
actions against political demonstrations.
In January last year, Minister of Justice Chem Snguon complained of intimidation
of judges and court staff by gendarmerie members under Kieng Savuth's control.
Observers say that the gendarmerie's image has suffered because of the political
links and history of its commander. Savuth was previously chief of a special police
force in Phnom Penh. It was this unit which in December 1991 fired into a crowd of
student demonstrators, killing at least 12. Savuth is now a member of CPP central
committee and known to be close to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
One observer said this week that the gendarmerie's composition and Savuth's influence
makes it quite obvious that the unit is a de facto adjunct of the CPP. "[He]
is not neutral. When someone is recruiting people, they have to know who they are
working with, they have to know their background."
French government sources said the choice of Savuth's appointment as commander
was imposed upon them by the Cambodian government, and that France had no say on
the issue of recruitment.
French Ministry of Defense sources said that soon after the gendarmerie's inception,
reports were sent to Paris that the group was being used to recycle the "A-teams"
set up by the former State of Cambodia. Such teams were, according to internal UN
documents, responsible for the infiltration, sabotage, intimidation and murders of
opposition parties in the 1993 election.
"A few months [after the French started cooperation with the new gendarmerie
in 1994], we received the first reports. The information was still very little. At
the beginning, there were no obvious reports about the links between the A-teams
and the gendarmerie," said a French source close to the issue who has since
"The warnings then came very quickly. We were aware; questions were asked at
the highest levels in France about whether the cooperation should be continued or
not. Pressure was brought to bear. There were threats to stop this cooperation and
establish better control. The problem was considered to be resolved. Now, has the
issue been covered up? I don't know."
Noting that it was risky endeavor to start the gendarmerie aid program in the first
place, he said: "If you decide to work with the reds [communists] and browns
[fascists], its no surprise that you find some in your soup."
Another source noted that in 1993 there was competition among different French projects
focusing on developing the rule of law in Cambodia. Some officials were in favor
of creating a gendarmerie and others were in favor of working only with existing
"There was already a structure with between 65,000 to 70,000 policemen. The
French created the new corps in parallel with the police," said the French official,
who has followed closely the development of the gendarmerie.
"Cambodians never really understood what the gendarmerie meant. There is no
criteria for the recruitment of the gendarmes except to be tall to scare [people].
They are known for buying their positions and are involved in drugs and all sorts
"It is shocking. They can do whatever they want but the French should not back
them up," he said. "On this issue they screwed up."
The same source acknowledged that the French gendarmerie and the police had struggled
over cooperation with the Cambodian government.
On his return to Cambodia in 1992 was provided security by RAID, an elite French
police unit, high profile sources from Paris confirmed. Preliminary discussions of
cooperation between the police and the Royalists were underway.
Asked if there were effectively two French law enforcement cooperation projects split
along party lines - police on the side of the Royalists and gendarmerie on the side
of the former State of Cambodia elements - the source said: "You [already] know
As the Hammarberg report noted, the gendarmerie was deeply involved during the July
fighting, on the side of elite forces loyal to Hun Sen, which resulted in the ousting
of First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh.
General Sao Sokha, the deputy commander of gendarmerie, confirmed to the UN Center
for Human Rights in Phnom Penh that his forces were in charge of taking over the
house of General Chao Sambath.
Sambath was a Funcinpec general who was allegedly executed as he fled from Phnom
Penh. Cases of torture within the gendarmerie headquarters were also been reported
after the July fighting, according to the UN.
On July 7, gendarmes were seen using small Peugeot pick-up trucks donated by the
French as vehicles to carry away looted motos, refrigerators and TV sets from houses
near areas where the fighting took place.
Asked about its role during the July coup, Kieng Savuth said that the gendarmerie
had acted in self-defense to disarm the "anarchic forces".
"They opened fire on us; the gendarmerie have the right to self-defense. The
gendarmerie just maintained social order."
Within a week after the fighting, French instructors resumed their duties at the
gendarmerie headquarters and training school.
The French observer who has followed closely the gendarmerie said: "Within eight
days after the coup, France should have stopped the cooperation and sent their trainers
back. But France is still continuing its support. Every time someone burns a fire
near their [gendarme] ass, the French put it out."
But French aid is likely to continue, other sources said. "At least, as we are
here we can tell them when they are doing something wrong," said one.
A French military official in Paris noted: "The closer we get to the elections,
the more the decision over maintaining or cutting the cooperation will be seen as