Human Rights Watch Calls for Loose-Lipped Minister’s Firing

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he did not believe Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth would face any disciplinary action after he repeated the gist of a seemingly confidential CPP meeting, including an alleged threat by Prime Minister Hun Sen to beat protesters with bamboo sticks.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, however, called for Mr. Sauth to be fired over the “outrageous” remarks suggestive of a “dictator’s logic.”

On Monday, Mr. Sauth described a pre-election CPP meeting presided over by Mr. Hun Sen to a group of officials and several reporters, echoing Mr. Hun Sen’s plans for a strong-armed approach to next year’s elections.

Mr. Sauth said he was too busy to comment on Wednesday, and his spokesman, Em Chan Makara, declined to do so, saying it involved a political issue rather than a state one.

Though Mr. Siphan also attended what he said was a CPP central committee meeting to discuss the commune elections and prepare for the national vote, he declined to confirm its contents, saying he had “no right to elaborate on it.”

“Whoever doesn’t respect the confidentiality, they have a problem. Not my problem,” he said.

Still, Mr. Siphan said he didn’t think that Mr. Sauth would face any party or state discipline for describing the meeting and for making the bamboo stick threat, which the spokesman justified as a traditional Khmer phrase without sinister overtones.

“When I was young, my monk leader used the bamboo stick. They beat you with a stick… ‘Hey, you want a bamboo stick or what?’” Mr. Siphan said, channeling an elder monk.

But Mr. Robertson—who last week demanded the Constitutional Council resign for signing off on contentious amendments to the Law on Political Parties—said the minister deserved to be sacked for the remarks.

Mr. Sauth “is clearly unfit for a job promoting social welfare when he thinks it’s alright to threaten to beat people with bamboo poles if they dare voice opinions different from the government, or peacefully protest to air their grievances,” Mr. Robertson wrote in a statement.

The minister has made himself look ignorant, “besmirched Cambodia’s already poor international reputation, and confirmed what many people are saying—that Cambodia has already slid well into dictatorship even before the votes are cast in 2018,” he said.

Keo Duong, a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh specializing in the history of the Khmer Rouge, said the regime had used bamboo sticks—and many other kinds—to kill its victims.

Still, the phrase doesn’t have a particular link to that era, according to Mr. Duong, with older Khmer sometimes using versions of the threat that mentioned shoes rather than sticks to quiet disobedient children.

“But the bamboo stick…it is stronger than the shoe,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)

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