S ENIOR Cambodian military officials have been exposed as controlling a systematic campaign of criminal extortion, murder, and routine gross human rights violations terrorizing Battambang province, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Post.
Confidential investigations by government, United Nations and human rights organizations have revealed senior Cambodian military personnel – including the commanding officers of elite secret military intelligence units – control criminal rackets responsible for:
- Systematically torturing and executing suspected political opponents
- Running a highly organized extortion and murder racket.
- Abducting, robbing, and executing traders
- Controling gambling and prostitution rings
- Recruiting known criminals to engage in organized armed robbery for the profit of military officers
- Demanded “protection fees” from provincial fisherman and peasants in order to work the rivers and avoid military conscription
The leaders of the military intelligence organization of the Fifth Military Region and another intelligence unit – known as S-91 – reporting directly to the Ministry of National Defense in Phnom Penh – are responsible for at least 53 summary extra-judicial killings, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Post. Investigators say the real figure is probably much higher.
Some of the victims were mutilated and then body parts cooked and eaten by their military captors, according to eyewitness accounts. One was blinded and had his limbs blown off when forced to clear minefields while held in secret prisons. Others were simply executed after being held hostage in exchange for ransom from relatives. Some victims were repeatedly raped and others were subjected to electric shock under interrogation. Included in those abducted were monks, nuns, and children. None of those seized by the military were ever formally charged with a crime.
But despite damning documentation of a reign of military terror that has gone unchecked for years in Battambang province, the Prime Ministers’ office released a report on July 22 denying that any of these activities had taken place, and has so far done little to stop the institutional abuses. Rather, the senior military officers directly implicated in these gross human rights violations have been promoted to higher ranks and continue to control the military intelligence operations in the key northwestern provinces.
The decision of the government to deny military terrorism exists in the face of overwhelming evidence could prevent some Western countries from providing hoped for military aid, according to diplomats. The government is actively seeking foreign assistance for the Cambodian military, and the United States, France and Australia have said that they are considering extending military assistance contingent on key reforms within the armed forces.
At least 35 people have been documented as executed in one secret military detention facility, known as Cheu Kmao, since August 1993, according to investigations by the UN Center for Human Rights and other human rights groups. Many of the findings were confirmed by Amnesty International and by a confidential investigation by the Military Prosecutors’ Office.
The same military units and leaders were involved in additional murders of political opposition party workers during the UN sponsored election campaign in 1992 and 1993, according to separate confidential United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia documents also obtained by the Post.
As well, investigations have proven the ring’s responsibility for a series of other military-ordered killings of suspected petty criminals, murders of their own agents who had fallen from favor, random killings of civilians targeted for robbery by the military units, and murders of others who were involved in personal disputes with operatives of S-91.
As well, these units are known to have created a criminal Mafia controlling much of the banditry, prostitution, and gambling in the province, according to investigators.
In addition to the 35 executions by S-91and the Special Intelligence Battalion between July and December 1993, at least 18 additional people have been confirmed killed by these units prior to August 1993, according to confidential investigations by Untac obtained by the Post.
The criminal network, directly controlled by the highest regional military authorities, was first discovered by Untac in mid 1992. On Aug 23, 1992, Untac forces entered a secret detention center in Battambang town they said was being used by the Fifth Military Region for torture and summary execution.
But despite the Untac operation to close the detention center and “repeated pledges made by provincial and military authorities” an Untac report written one year later admitted that “S-91 once again uses the same building for interrogation and torture, continues to have the same leadership, and continues to conduct illegal activities including abduction, torture, and summary killing.”
And, despite further protests to the government and military authorities, the torture and killings continued. Between July and December 1993 – at least 35 more executions were cited by the UN Center for Human Rights.
According to a report by the UN Center for Human Rights dated May 10, 1994, because the UN was in the process of pulling out of Cambodia in late 1993 “no action was taken against those responsible. As a result these activities, including abduction, temporary detention and summary executions continued unabated.”
The report, based on a several-month investigation, stated the UN has over a two year period “investigated and documented a series of murders and other criminal activities attributed to a military intelligence unit designated S-91. The investigation established beyond a reasonable doubt that several of the highest military intelligence officers in the province, including the leadership of the agency, were directly responsible for these murders.”
Among the senior military officers directly implicated in the political and military violence are:
- Gen Toat Theuan, chief of staff of the Fifth Military Region, which comprises Battambang, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey;
- Gen Toan Saveth, head of the Ministry of National Defence Intelligence Bureau responsible for three western provinces;
- Gen Phal Prunh, deputy to Toan Saveth and head of S-91 Military Intelligence in Battambang;
- Col Youn Youm, head of the fifth military region Special Intelligence Battalion (and responsible for Cheu Kmao secret detention camp)
- Other named officers who ran secret prisons under the command of the military intelligence units.
According to the report by the UN Center for Human Rights distributed to senior members of the Cambodian government by the UN , “these individuals have been repeatedly implicated by corroborating first-hand sources, thus establishing their direct responsibility in these illegal detentions and murders beyond a reasonable doubt. There are also reasons to believe that the highest political, military, and police authorities in Battamabang province are fully aware of these activities but have so far taken no serious step to make them stop or take sanctions against those responsible.”
The UN Center for Human Rights report stated that the evidence gathered was probably only a portion of the real number of political and criminal murders and was “nothing but yet another discovered island in the archipelago of criminal activities carried out by these soldiers in Battambang province”
The report said that “both greed and political motivations inspire these activities” and that military personnel are “making use of wide and uncontrolled powers they enjoy in the province to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture and execute to carry out, concurrently to their military intelligence work, more lucrative activities.
“Suspected or real Khmer Rouge are robbed and executed, and the accusation of ‘Khmer Rouge’ justifies the elimination of well-off traders and merchants … these activities appear to be just another example of abuse of power by military personnel, and illustrate the virtual absence of control of and accountability by military personnel.”
Several eyewitness and other sources confirmed that military personnel ate parts of the bodies of executed prisoners as a frequent practice. One prisoner said within days of his arrival at the prison of Cheu Khmao he was forced, while his hands were tied behind his back, to drink a rice wine in which “several dozen human gall bladders were macerating”.
Other reports, as cited by the UN Center for Human Rights, had “executors in Cheu Khmao ripping open the abdomen of their victims to extract their liver and bile. The livers of the victims were then subsequently fried or grilled and eaten by the soldiers.”
Traditional Cambodian belief has that eating the liver of your enemy gives one strength and ferocity on the battlefield, and the practice has been known to occur by soldiers on all sides in Cambodia’s recent wars.
Cheu Kmao, is a secret detention facility controlled by the Special Intelligence Branch of the Fifth Military Region, and located 35 km northeast of Battambang town along the Sanke river.
Its chief, Col Youn Youm, still has an outstanding arrest warrant from UNTAC, when he was known to have directed the Feb 1, 1993 disappearance and presumed murder of four Funcinpec party workers in the run up to elections.
The S-91 unit was formed after 1979 by the Vietnamese occupation forces – the unit was then called T-6 – to go after political opponents and returnees from the Thai refugee camps, but has since “expanded their operation”, in the words of one investigator.
In 1990 it changed its name to S-91 as it moved from direct Vietnamese control to Cambodian authority under the command of then Lt-Col – now Gen – Tuon Saveth.
According to Untac investigations, “at least until late 1992, reports were allegedly made by Toan Saveth to the Vietnamese consulate in Battambang.”
According to several former guards at the secret prison, in late 1992 Gen Saveth first suspended then reorganized S-91 operations in response to Untac’s actions against it. On “Sept 18 1992 Tuon Saveth chaired a meeting of personnel to re-establish the unit. According to different ex-guards, the plan involved gathering robbers who had been released from prison and using them to kill or to arrest other robbers, with the aim of extracting money,” an Untac report said.
In another report citing ex-guards as sources, S-91 plotted to arrest people to extort money. The guards said that detainees could be “release[d], in exchange for bribes to Toan Saveth, or [Saveth would order the] killing of those detained.”
Toan Saveth’s alleged campaign of lawlessness appears to have temporarily come to a halt last month for reasons seperate from these charges.
According to government reports, Gen Saveth was arrested on July 15 after a confrontation with police. That day, a routine police checkpoint looking for illegal weapons attempted to stop his car in Maung district, Battambang. Saveth refused to stop on request, stopped his car 70 meters ahead, and the occupants got out of the car and opened fire on the police outpost with rifles, grenades and automatic weapons. Four police officers were gravely wounded. Gen Saveth was later arrested and is said to be under detention in Phnom Penh.
Battambang province saw more political violence against opposition parties campaigning against the CPP during the run up to UN elections than any other province except Kompong Cham. Most of the attacks, often using grenades and other weaponry on party offices in districts at night, went unsolved because of lack of witnesses.
Despite scores of politically motivated attacks, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries of opposition party workers, Funcinpec decisively won the election in Battambang. Nevertheless, most of the exact CPP political and military leadership remain in full control of provincial operations.
UN investigations also revealed that in August 1992, S-91 chief Gen Toan Saveth ordered the execution of three soldiers accused of working with former resistance factions. The three men were being held in another secret S-91-controlled prison in Battambang.
According to the Untac report “this order came shortly after Toan Saveth learned that Untac was going to enter the prison.” According to UN investigators, when Untac informed Toan Saveth that they were about to enter the secret detention facility, per the provisions of the Paris Peace Accords, he ordered the prisoners removed and executed only hours before Untac officials arrived on the scene.
But many of the activities of the military intelligence operatives appear motivated by greed or personal revenge. One documented case in April 1993 had a government soldier murdered and tortured by S-91 personnel “after he had been playing cards with [and had won considerable money from]” S-91 soldiers at the house of Toat Theuan, chief of staff of the Fifth Military Region.
Other activities of the Battambang military “include continued abduction on markets of merchants and traders who are then held hostage until their families offer sufficient rewards” and “the systematic illegal taxation … of traders and fisherman”.
“Compulsory ‘protection fees’ over fishing concessions against supposed Khmer Rouge threats are also systematically extracted from local fishing communities by military intelligence soldiers. Reluctant fisherman are said to have their boat seized and have been accused of ‘trading with the Khmer Rouge’ to compel them to pay … local villagers are left with no alternative if they want to continue to exert their trade and make a living in the area.”
But despite the documentation of these gross human rights abuses and criminal activity, the government investigation ordered by the Prime Ministers’ office has concluded that there is no evidence that these charges are true or that elements of the military are abusing their authority.
“Regarding news of the killing in one place of 35 people after being moved there from S-91 there are no witnesses or evidence testifying to the truth of this,” according to the July 22 report of the Special Commission to Investigate Secret Detention Centers of the Army in Battambang Province submitted to the Prime Ministers’ office .
The report further denied the existence of Cheu Kmao and other secret detention and torture facilities. The committee concluded that the S-91 center, where numerous eyewitnesses and victims have reported detention and torture “have no characteristics indicating they are secret detention sites …. In actual fact, these places are the offices of the Second Bureau of the General Staff in Battambang province.”
The committee report, considered the final government investigation, “is convinced that “Cheu Kmao” area cannot possibly be a secret detention center.”
But in another government investigation, conducted by the Military Prosecutors office dated July 11, and obtained by the Post, the military investigators contradicted the public government report and confirmed S-91’s involvement in executions and abductions, including the practice of cannibalism against recently executed prisoners.
In addition the report confirmed “over 60 victims detained in that camp of Cheu Kmao..” The Military Prosecutor “request[ed] HE the Minister of Defence to issue the order … to control and destroy immediately these two secret camps.”
The Military Prosecutors report further stated “the detention camp at S-91 is under the control of Phal Prunh, who is a Lt Gen of S-91 who answers to the Second Bureau [of Military Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence].”
According to the UN Center for Human Rights report, Gen Phal Prunh “has been repeatedly implicated, including from victims of extortion, relatives of victims of execution, as well as military personnel, as one of the top three military officers in the province masterminding and directly running these criminal activities … his name is well known in Battambang city and is associated to fear, brutality, ruthlessness, and mercilessness.”
According to other Untac documents “Phal Prunh has been implicated in a series of murders” from at least July 1992.
Gen Prunh, who was only a lieutenant when UN investigators first informed government authorities of his suspected involvement in killings, is listed as in charge of the “investigation and killing section” of S-91.
The S-91 secret detention center in Battambang city is said to be under his direct command. He is missing both forearms and one eye and is believed to be approximately 50 years old.
According to testimony of S-91 ex-guards in 1993, Gen Prunh “would order them to conduct a robbery and would provide all the materials necessary including AK-47s, B-40s and armored vehicles, and would also lead them personally. If anything happened during the banditry activities, Prunh would take responsibility and guarantee his subordinates’ safety and release.”
The UN Center for Human Rights was more succinct: “Phal Prunh has been implicated in numerous illegal arrests, detention, interrogation, torture, and executions of detainees in Battambang province.”
An investigation of Phal Prunh’s involvement in one triple murder of Aug 3, 1993, found that the General received the victims at his house to offer them work, invited them to share a meal at his dinner table, and then had them arrested and shot.
The victims were “known ex-robbers with possible links to S-91, [who] went on August 3, 1993 to S-91 to give their biographies to Col Phal Prunh in order to formally join the unit.” According to a UN report based on eyewitness evidence, “after having dinner there, they were suddenly arrested at gun point and beaten …. put in a Komanka jeep at gun point, blindfolded and taken out and shot in the head. Pieces of paper declaring that “the activity of the robber groups must be destroyed” were left by each body on the outskirts of Battambang.
The UN Center for Human rights report says that the Prime Ministers’ Office investigation team had full access to detailed evidence proving that the military intelligence units in Battambang “from top to bottom, as well as military personnel in general, appear to enjoy largely unrestricted and uncontrolled powers to arrest, detain, torture, interrogate and execute suspects in total disregard for existing constitutional and other legal safeguards protecting their individual rights.”
It stated further that “… the absence of any form of accountability despite the awareness at the highest provincial echelons of these activities, is an encouragement to these officers and their subordinates to continue.”
UN officials and human rights activists say that the government’s official report looks like, as one investigator put it, ” a whitewash and a cover-up”.
But investigators say it also reflects the powerful political and military connections and protection the accused military officers enjoy at senior levels in Phnom Penh. They say that the criminal racket is so powerful that government officials are too scared to confront it.
Senior provincial police officials in Battambang fully acknowledged the criminal activities of the accused officers and military units. “But there is no legal way to bring their activity under the framework of the law,” said one, “if I want to do something, I have to use force, if I use force they will respond.”
The charges against the military are not new. Formal detailed complaints were submitted to the Ministry of Justice last year, as well as to the provincial governor and the provincial tribunal in 1992, according to government sources and human rights investigators.
Provincial police have “sent report after report to the Ministry of Interior, but there has never been any action,” according to police sources.
Police officials in Battambang last month confirmed to investigators the criminal activities of the military units. One senior government police official said “those responsible for the activities were a small group of high ranking officers who were highly protected.”
He said that the police were “fully aware of their activities” and that “report after report had been submitted by the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Defense but that no action had been taken” and that despite “3,000 policemen in the province he was not in a position to take action against those responsible because this would result in an open confrontation which he wanted to avoid.”
In 1993, Battambang police officials were similarly inclined. An Aug 20 Untac report said “according to local police, since late 1992, S-91 has recruited a significant number of released or suspected robbers and S-91 members are considered responsible for many of the acts of banditry around Battambang town.
“Nonetheless, despite being fully aware and having clear evidence of many of these activities, local police have taken no action on any serious case involving S-91.
“Besides any political backing and legal immunity S-91 members may in practice enjoy, it is also obvious that local policemen [like other witnesses] are extremely afraid of the personal consequences of even aiding Untac in investigation of this unit’s activities.”
The lack of political will from the government to stop the criminal activity of the military also reflects the official nervousness to acknowledge such crimes while they are actively requesting military assistance from Western countries, investigators believe.
Recent reports from Battambang province also speak of other forms of military terror not connected to the activities of the military intelligence offices, particularly in a campaign of forced conscription villagers say is connected to anticipation of foreign military aid.
“Conscription is said to be linked with requests by the Phnom Penh government for assistance from Western countries,” according to UN field report from Battambang dated July 21,1994, “it was clear that the military authorities need to fill their ranks, accounting for all the names provided earlier when Untac paid soldiers’ salaries. In one case conscripts were being registered under the names of these “ghosts”.
The report spoke of “conscription from the rice fields with soldiers shooting in the ground” and “in many recorded cases, whole adult populations sleeping for months on end in the fields to avoid being apprehended from their homes at night.”
Other reports from Battambang spoke of additional consequences to the conscription campaign, including new campaigns of terror and extortion with soldiers “arresting people and telling them if they do not pay they will be sent to the front-line.”
Aid workers in Battambang say that poor villagers with no money are running away and hiding and not planting crops. “If they are caught and have even a small piece of land we find they will sell it to avoid conscription.”
Provincial aid workers say that rural development projects have been brought to a halt where conscription is being enforced as villagers flee.
The UN Center for Human Rights report concluded that “villagers feel totally helpless as they see no recourse against official arbitrary violence and abuses.
“Deprived of any means to seek justice, even when their children are taken away and being murdered, they swallow their anger and sadness, bow to the powers that be, accept with resignation their fate and withdraw in silence, knowing after long years of oppressive experience that words can kill.”
One relative of a young villager killed by military intelligence operatives said in April: “We are afraid of reprisals by the military. Here whoever has the guns, holds the villages. There is no justice. What we want now is to be left in peace.”