By Mech Dara and Alex Willemyns
October 16, 2013
The Cambodia Daily
A man seized by participants at a teacher’s rally on Sunday after he was seen carrying a pistol was on Tuesday confirmed to be a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Personal Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), while photographs discovered online raised questions of the man’s role within the secretive military unit, and his motives at the opposition-aligned demonstration.
Poeurng Choeurn, 38, was photographing a group of monks at a small rally organized by the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park when he was confronted by CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua over a K-54 pistol he had concealed under his shirt.
Rally-goers set upon Mr. Choeurn, disarming him and dragging him across the park, before military police collected him and took him behind their police line. Mr. Choeurn was treated for minor injuries at Calmette Hospital, where he listed his occupation in a patient registration book as “Samdech Bodyguard” before departing.
Touch Naroth, chief of the bodyguard unit at the Ministry of Interior, on Tuesday confirmed Mr. Choeurn’s employment in the prime minister’s personal armed force.
“He works at Samdech Techo’s bodyguard unit,” General Naroth said, using the “Techo” honorific used exclusively for Mr. Hun Sen. “Don’t ask me [about him], he does not work at my unit.”
PMBU Commander General Hing Bun Heang declined to comment on Mr. Choeurn and instead directed a reporter to speak to the person who had confirmed his position: “Whoever said he is a bodyguard, go ask him.”
Conflicting accounts of Mr. Choeurn’s identity emerged following the brief scene of chaos at Freedom Park on Sunday. Along with the gun, he was also carrying a press pass identifying him as a reporter for the news agency of the Municipal Information Department (MID), the Phnom Penh arm of the Ministry of Information.
Khuth Samkhann, the director of the MID, confirmed that he worked for the agency and said that did not know why he was carrying a pistol at the event.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith also said that his ministry sends photographers to document rallies, but denied that they were ever armed. He later suggested that Mr. Choeurn might be “temporary staff.”
Mr. Samkhann said Tuesday that while the MID did not work for Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, Mr. Choeurn was free to work wherever else he wanted.
“He can work in any institution so long as he produces news for our department,” Mr. Samkhann said, adding that it did not matter if his staff member was armed.
“I do not care about his pistol, I just know that he covered the news for me.”
Photographs discovered Tuesday on social media profiles attributed to Mr. Choeurn and his friends, however, added to the mystery about his real line of work.
The photographs show him variously standing alongside Hun Manet—Mr. Hun Sen’s eldest son—members of the military and Prime Minister’s bodyguards and, in one case, with his arm around former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Shinawatra, who is wanted in Thailand, has been offered safe-passage and sanctuary in Cambodia by Mr. Hun Sen for a number of years.
One photo shows Mr. Choeurn wearing his press identification card in September, while another taken in July shows him wearing an ID card reading “Bodyguard Department.”
Another album of photographs placed online by Mr. Choeurn contains a seemingly endless collection of images of participants at opposition CNRP events. That album includes photographs of monks and journalists at demonstrations, as well as what appears to be three covertly taken photographs of opposition youth activist Thy Sovantha, who runs the 200,000-follower strong, CNRP-aligned “I Love Cambodia Hot News” Facebook page.
© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.