The son of Cambodia’s long-serving leader was promoted to two senior military posts on Saturday as his father looks to tighten his family’s grip on the country’s leadership.
The move comes after 12 generals were accused of committing decades of human rights abuses to prop up Prime Minister Hun Sen in a Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday.
Hun Sen is alleged to be priming his three sons for a political dynasty ahead of national elections he is expected to win this month after the dissolution of the main opposition party last year.
His eldest son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, was promoted to acting chief of joint staff and commander of the army headquarters, according to defence ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat.
The 40-year-old West Point trained officer will keep his current roles as head of the defence ministry’s anti-terrorism unit and the deputy commander of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit.
The defence spokesperson said Hun Manet’s promotion was merit-based and not because of his family name.
“There is nothing strange, his promotions have been made based on his qualifications and experience in the army,” Chhum Socheat told AFP news agency on Saturday.
Hun Sen’s second son, Hun Manit, is the head of a powerful military intelligence unit and his youngest, Hun Many, is a parliamentarian who oversees the ruling party’s far-reaching youth movement.
‘Abusive and authoritarian’
Two generals named in the Human Rights Watch report – Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim – also stepped down from their senior military roles this week in order to run for parliament in the July 29 vote.
“These 12 men are the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime over which an increasingly dictatorial Hun Sen rules,” the report said of the generals.
They were accused of “violations of human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed from the 1970s to the present,” it said.
“Most of the 12 have been implicated in the use of unnecessary, excessive, and sometimes lethal force against protests about unfree and unfair elections, land confiscations, labour abuses, and low wages.”
The Cambodian ministry of defence denied the HRW’s allegations, calling it a “deranged report”.
Several others were moved in the military shuffle, including military police commander-in-chief Sao Sokha who was appointed acting supreme commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
One of the world’s longest serving leaders, Hun Sen is accused of stifling political freedoms in the country.
The previous largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved in November accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
They performed well in the last general and local elections, but candidates lost their seats when the party was banned.
The opposition leader Kem Sokha was jailed, charged with treason.
There has been international condemnation of the move with 45 countries signing a letter calling for the opposition to be reinstated, and for Kim Sokha to be freed.
The United States and the European Union have also withdrawn funding for July’s vote.
The government says it isn’t concerned about the criticism, and won’t intervene in the judicial process.
“They can voice, but that doesn’t reflect the spirit of all the people in those countries. They’re very negative on Cambodia today, but in the future they will come back to us, it’s normal,” Huy Vannak from the Cambodian interior ministry told Al Jazeera.
Many locals, however, are losing faith in the political process.
“Most people who used to support my party in the area say that if there’s no Cambodia National Rescue Party in the election, they won’t vote,” CNRP candidate Hean Keu said.
‘War on independent media’
Several independent media outlets have been shut down in Cambodia during the past year.
In September, independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily announced it was shutting down after being slapped with a $6.3m tax bill, which its publishers said was politically motivated.
The Daily’s closure came weeks after a government crackdown on 32 radio stations, including Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh bureau, according to figures compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an organisation aimed at protecting press freedom.
RSF alleges Hun Sen’s government is leading “an all-out war on independent media outlets with the aim of ensuring victory in the general elections”.
Several senior staff at the Phnom Penh Post also resigned in May, after the publication’s new owner fired the editor-in-chief over a story concerning the paper’s sale to Malaysian businessman Sivakumar S Ganapathy.
Under the headline “Phnom Penh Post sold to Malaysian investor”, the article raised concerns over Ganapathy’s links to Hun Sen and the Malaysian government.
“We are worried about our editorial independence heading into this year’s national elections… Cambodia has lost a lot of independent media, so we were widely considered to be the last independent news outlet here,” Post reporter Erin Handley told Al Jazeera.