Phnom Penh’s military police chief, Rath Sreang, the commander who oversaw fatal crackdowns during the post-2013 election period, was recently among 28 members of the gendarmerie awarded a promotion, it emerged yesterday.
News of Sreang’s promotion renewed questions about the security services’ distribution of promotions, even as a high-ranking National Police official yesterday acknowledged that ranks within the force were being bought and sold.
Sreang – who commanded forces responding to minimum wage protests on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard in January 2014, where security forces shot dead at least four people – was elevated from a two-star major general to a three-star lieutenant general, according to a royal decree signed on January 28 and circulated on local media.
One of a large group of security figures added to the CPP’s powerful central committee in 2015, Sreang was transferred to the capital in 2013 from his post as military police chief in Banteay Meanchey, where he ran a drug rehabilitation centre, which Human Rights Watch linked to abuses including forced blood donations.
His arrival in Phnom Penh followed unrest arising from the disputed 2013 ballot.
At the time, a senior military insider told the Post that Sreang’s predecessor was demoted for failing to stop riots on election day.
Sreang oversaw several crackdowns against protesters that erupted in the turbulent year after the election, more than one of which resulted in deaths, though yesterday, military police spokesman Eng Hy rejected the characterisation of “crackdown”, saying police were “keeping order”.
Hy went on to maintain that promotions within the gendarmerie were evaluated on their merits at a meeting of military police top brass.
“There is no corruption in rank promotions,” Hy said.
However, citing Sreang’s hard-nosed history, Am Sam Ath, of the rights group Licadho, suggested Sreang was being rewarded for his work during the unrest, and to ensure more loyalty in the future. “The government did this in order to encourage him to protect the government and the party,” he said.
Paul Chambers, an academic with the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs who has studied Cambodia’s security forces, also suggested yesterday that the promotions were motivated by a push for the “further entrenchment” of a “merged” ruling party and security apparatus.
But Sreang yesterday maintained his promotion was normal and noted it was shared with other officers before referring questions to the gendarmerie spokesman.
According to the same royal decree, three colonels were made one-star brigadier generals, 12 brigadier generals made major generals and 10 major generals made lieutenant generals.
News of the fresh round of military promotions came as National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith confirmed longstanding suspicions that many promotions within police ranks had been bought and paid for, with senior officials vowing to “put an end” to the practice as part of broader reforms.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with provincial officers at the Ministry of Interior yesterday, Chantharith said the National Police would crack down on bribes for ranks and develop a formal process for promotions to ensure hard work and experience was rewarded.
“My general [police commissioner Neth Savoeun] has informed all departments and provincial police chiefs to end this issue from today,” Chantharith said, adding anyone caught trying to bribe their way up the ladder would face the law.
Chantharith is far from the first official to acknowledge underserved promotions, something for which both the military and police forces have repeatedly come under fire.
In 2011, Defence Minister Tea Banh put a freeze on advancements within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, admitting there was a “gap” between some officers’ experience and ranks.
Two years later Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose sons are both high-ranking military generals, chastised RCAF for unprofessionalism, following reports that unqualified officers had bribed their way to higher positions.
Chambers, the academic, said that the practice of buying ranks, like politically motivated promotions, was a trend across all of the Kingdom’s security bureaucracies.
“Paying for promotions is something that police, military police and army officers in Cambodia have endured. Yes, I heard about this from security officials I interviewed,” he said. “Such bribery is not uncommon in Cambodia’s bureaucratic kleptocracy.”