Two high profile court cases are poised to throw a spotlight on Cambodia’s hardline internal security apparatus. The first is the trial of 23 activists caught up in protests that left five people dead amid a crackdown on striking garment workers. The second is litigation filed by senior opposition figure Mu Sochua against government officials over their continued use of force against protesters trying to occupy a downtown park.
In the foreground sits a man who has never shied from the court of public opinion or the battleground of striking workers and anti-government protesters. Sok Penhvuth, Deputy Governor of Daun Penh District in the heart of the capital, has overseen the deployment of his men, the beating of civilians, and a ruthless suppression of dissent.
Mu Sochua said the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was compiling a case against Sok Penhvuth and charges would include assault and attempted murder charges.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“The National Rescue Party has taken this case to a lawyer for pursuing legal measures,” she said. “We will also ask for administrative punishment by suspending deputy governor Sok Penhvuth from his position.”
She said the deputy governor consistently appears when gatherings are violently suppressed through an extra-legal district security force. That force is officially known as the District Municipal Security Guards (DMSG) and has been responsible for clearing Freedom Park of anti-government protesters using any and all tactics at their disposal.
They were particularly prominent on January 3, when the park was brutally cleared of protesters who had set-up a base camp as security forces on the outskirts of town battled striking workers, enlisted by the CNRP, resulting in five deaths.
Escalating violence followed an unrelenting anti-government push by the CNRP. It says it was cheated out of an election victory at national polls last July. It has boycotted parliament and demanded fresh elections amid widely disruptive street demonstrations, angering the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and long-serving prime minister, Hun Sen.
Instead of seeking an honest appraisal of his floundering political fortunes, Hun Sen preferred a jackboot approach to the opposition and left a bloody trail of dead, wounded and detained.
However, the violence that followed last July’s general elections was anticipated by those close to the prime minister’s inner circle including soldiers based in the capital who, according to government sources, refused to enforce draconian laws that included a ban on public protests.
“They are not going to baton charge or open fire on demonstrators. Their own people could be among them and many of the soldiers also voted for the Cambodian National Rescue Party but it’s not like they’re going to tell their superior officers,” one government source said.
Those soldiers were subsequently confined to barracks before Christmas while a new, haphazard if effective force, the DMSG, was cobbled together. In the following weeks Hun Sen deployed four branches of troops, police and security guards to enforce his ban on public gatherings.
Under the government’s enforcement policies traffic police were used to cordon off a wide perimeter. They were usually backed-up by riot police, recognized by a district acronym like TK – for Tuol Kork, who were trained at Hun Sen’s multi-million dollar private retreat known as the Tiger’s Lair.
Inside the perimeter is the DMSG, known in the court of public opinion as the meanest of them all.
Sok Penhvuth’s men were sent in with batons, cattle prods, sling shots and knuckle dusters to clear the city’s parks and streets of protestors. The DMSG has no legal backing nor are their security guards armed with guns and live ammunition.
Typically, once the DMSG clears the inside of a perimeter the Gendarmerie Royale of Khmer (GRK) steps in. Kitted out like RoboCop and heavily armed, their job is to hold the zone. The gendarmes, also known as the military police, were responsible for opening fire on anti-government protesters during a strike outside an industrial complex on January 3.
But it was the arrival of the DMSG that constituted a fourth force at protest sites and caused the greatest consternation.
Dubbed by some as “thugs in civilian clothes,” the DMSG was partially forged out of elements from the elite 911 Para-commando battalion and Brigade 70.
Brigade 70 is a feeder brigade that grooms troops for duty with the elite Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit (PMBU). A 2007 report by environmental watchdog Global Witness found B70 made between $2 million and $2.5 million a year transporting illegally logged timber and smuggled goods.
“A large slice of the profits generated through these activities goes to Lieutenant General Hing Bun Heang, commander of the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit,” it said.
But more importantly the Sok Penhvuth’s DMSG has rekindled memories of more than a decade ago when the Pagoda Boys – street kids and hoods that lived in CPP-friendly pagodas – were allegedly used to intimidate at the ruling party’s discretion. They were prominent during the anti-Thai riots of 2003 when mobs went on the rampage across Phnom Penh.
The initial task of forming the DMSG was handed to Daun Penh District Governor Sok Sambath, who has a track record of using former Pagoda Boys in his administration.
Other branches of the police and military also contributed to the DMSG, including troops who backed Hun Sen during the last of the fighting in Cambodia’s long-running civil wars that pitted his CPP in battle against the Funcinpec Party in 1997 and 1998.
Back then many wore a red arm band to denote loyalty to Hun Sen. Red arm bands are back among some in the DMSG, along with blue surgical face masks or black motorbike helmets with visors to conceal their identity.
They do not wear badges, name tags, hold rank or wear any other form of identification.
After a special meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to review Cambodia’s human rights record, the government gave an insight into the level of support troops and the DMSG paramilitary enjoys with the nation’s leadership.
It rejected UN recommendations to investigate the January 3 killing of protesters, and refused to countenance training in human rights for the police or a prohibition on the use of violence by unofficial or plainclothes security forces. This means the DMSG can do whatever it likes, winning the paramilitary unit worthy comparisons with Hitler’s Brownshirts or Mussolini’s Blackshirts.
So entrenched is the culture of violence within the DMSG’s ranks that Sok Penhvuth was filmed, dressed in his office attire striking a civilian on the head with a bullhorn.
It was an action that Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he “… did not see anything wrong with.”
Such tactics have been used to fend off political opposition in this country for decades. Historians have documented how the much revered late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, publicly humiliated democrats who were beaten by thugs.
Throughout the 1960s Sihanouk would publicly screen the executions of opposing political figures at cinemas and in 1968 he had 40-odd teachers marched off the top of Bokor Mountain to their deaths for dissident activities.
Violent scare tactics were more common throughout the decades of war and continued well after the CPP came to power in the 1980s. However, Cambodians are becoming far less tolerant of such behavior, nor are they as easily cowered as they once were.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), alongside its 47 member organizations from 16 countries, has condemned the use of force as excessive and asked the government to revoke the blanket ban on all public assemblies.
The calls were ignored.
Also being ignored are the real problems beseeching Hun Sen and the CPP. Their issues are not with dissidents which have become targets of the DMSG and other forces but their dwindling popularity, an inability to deal with changing demographics and the rise of a younger generation whose numbers will decide the outcome of the next election.
Beating up protestors is unlikely to help and their actions are expected to be laid bare in court. Mu Sochua has also won the support of important financial backers.
Hong Lim, a Cambodian-Australian and Member of the Victorian State Parliament said “there is a political crisis happening there, there is no doubt.”
Lim personally oversaw the raising of more than $300,000 last year for CNRP coffers, about a third of which came from the Cambodian diaspora in Australia. Initially, he said, many thought the opposition boycott of parliament and the level of protests were excessive.
“I thought their demands were unrealistic but the people don’t want them in the parliament,” he said. “It is almost immoral to deal with this government in Phnom Penh… They’re condescending and patronizing.”
He also said Mu Sochua needed extra help and called on other elected CNRP officials to back her. “Why is she on her own; why are not all the other MPs coming out there together?”
In court Mu Sochua’s will have company. Lawmaker-elect Lim Kim Ya has filed charges and claims for financial restitution over damages allegedly caused by Sok Penhvuth. Charges of causing intentional violence carry a maximum sentence of five years and another four CNRP officials are believed to be considering similar legal action.
Also in the dock will be the 23 people arrested during the protests and strikes demanding higher pay. All are pleading innocent. However, the one person who has yet to show is Sok Penhvuth. Given his prediliction for turning out in public in troubled times and the nature of the charges, another vintage performance by the deputy district governor may not be too far off.