With three men set to face court today over the brutal bashing of two opposition lawmakers outside parliament last year, official documents have confirmed the accused are members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal Bodyguard Unit – while additional evidence suggests further involvement by the elite unit.
Mao Hoeung, 34; Sot Vanny, 45; and Chhay Sarith, 33, were due to appear at Phnom Penh Municipal Court this morning on charges of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and property damage in relation to the October 26 attack on CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea.
Read: Beaten lawmakers to skip hearing
While previously identified only as “soldiers” – and despite the Bodyguard Unit expressly disavowing them – official documents signed by authorities and seen by the Post list the trio as “Bodyguard unit” members.
Reached yesterday, the chief of the unit, Lieutenant General Hin Bun Heang, initially reiterated previous denials of the group’s involvement.
Informed the Post had seen the documents attesting to the men’s unit, he told a reporter “do not exaggerate”, before rationalising the three suspects’ actions in light of their claims that they were verbally insulted by the victims.
“They were suffering, [the lawmakers] had cursed their party’s leader,” Bun Heang said.
“Do not get mad with them … this is a right in a mutual democracy.”
While only three men have been charged over the assault, video footage of the attack shows at least 16 who punch, kick or strike the lawmakers, after they are dragged from their cars outside the National Assembly.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak yesterday dismissed questions about the remaining suspects.
“The most important thing is that we have sent the case reports to the court and we have had three perpetrators who have come to confess,” Sopheak said.
“Up until now, the court has not ordered the ministry to do anything else.”
Under condition of anonymity, a foreign observer, working for an international organisation in Cambodia that has followed the case, said it was doubtful more attackers would ever be brought to justice.
“Government officials are satisfied that this is a closed case, they have their three and that is it,” they said.
* * *
Near the Bassac River in Kandal province’s Takhmao district is a base used by the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit.
It is from here, according to the owner of a truck hire company interviewed by Radio Free Asia, that men were ferried to the parliament on the day of the attack.
An undated picture, circulated on social media afterwards, shows about 30 men inside the base’s main gateway. More than a dozen are waiting in the back of a blue open-bed truck. Others are piled into a van.
A figure standing near the truck wearing a black polo shirt emblazed with an insignia in its top left corner, black pants, black shoes and a black peaked cap has a red krama tied around his waist, like many of the attackers.
Video shows a man dressed identically taking part in the fray, ripping Chamroeun from his car then later walking past a figure, believed to be suspect Mao Hoeung, who delivers the final blow to the grounded lawmaker – a stomp to his ribcage.
The man then takes out a mobile and starts dialing.
“Clearly some of the attackers were coordinating by walkie-talkie and mobile phone with persons [away] from the protest, indicating that these protests were far from spontaneous,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
* * *
The night before the attack, Prime Minister Hun Sen – after enduring protests during his state visit to France – alluded to an impending counter demonstration. About 2,000 people descended on the National Assembly on October 26 and demanded CNRP leader Kem Sokha be sacked as the parliament’s first vice president.
“If you play, do not be angry; if you are angry, do not play, and if tomorrow, they play in Phnom Penh, do not get angry with them,” Hun Sen said.
It was in the wake of the counter demonstration that the attack on the CNRP lawmakers occurred.
The premier and other CPP figures quickly condemned the violence and moved to distance the protest – which was characterised as an expression of the “will of the people” – from the subsequent violence, which also involved a prolonged attack on Sokha’s house in Tuol Kork, which was pelted with stones while his wife was inside.
In November last year, the Post revealed that the honorary president of the youth group that led the counter protest, the CPP-aligned Youth Federation of Senaneak (YFS), was Lieutenant General Deang Sarun, a deputy commander in the Bodyguard Unit.
The senior commander, who was unreachable for comment yesterday, is also head of the base in Takhmao – known as Porng Loeung base – where the men were photographed being loaded onto trucks.
The vehicle rental service owner interviewed by RFA, who the Post has been unable to contact, said he rented out 10 vehicles at $40 each to take men from the Porng Loeung base to the National Assembly on October 26.
He said each vehicle carried about 18 people.
“They were all soldiers, young men under 30,” the unnamed company owner said.
When the Post visited Takhmao in the days after the attack to speak to suspect Vanny’s family, reporters were told they needed to seek the permission of his commander “Bong Run” – a nickname used for Sarun – and were directed to the Porng Loeung base.
A local official this week confirmed that at least one more of the suspects – Chhay Sarith – was a subordinate of Sarun’s as well.
“Deang Sarun owns and is in charge at the base,” said Tech Bunna, village chief of nearby Samroang II, where Sarith’s family lives.
“Sarith has worked at the base for about 10 years. He was gentle, kind and has good relations with the people in the neighbourhood.
“We do not know why he beat up the lawmakers.”
* * *
In statements to police seen by the Post, all three suspects claimed they drifted over to the rally after hearing about it while nearby.
However, photographs captured on the day show Chhay Sarith and Mao Hoeung on the protest’s front line, close to the YFS leaders, including Deang Sarun’s son Deang Saran, who is a deputy leader of YFS.
Hoeung holds a banner reading “We need to keep stability and security today”. Sarith – wearing a bright red hat, red shoes and blue krama around his waist – marches at the front of the crowd, his arm raised and fist clenched.
The men, who acknowledge being colleagues in their statements, said they moved to the parliament’s south gate after the main rally and the men surrounding them were motodops and tuk-tuk drivers.
They claimed they attacked after the men in the cars – who they denied knowing were parliamentarians – insulted them, calling them “yuon” and “puppets of yuon”.
It’s a justification that’s also been offered by senior officials and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Saphea and Chamroeun have vehemently denied this version of events.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch from their hospital beds in Bangkok, both recalled that their cars were directed by security guards to the complex’s rarely used south exit.
Upon reaching the street, Saphea spotted a man in a red hat who spoke into a walkie-talkie who he yesterday identified as Chhay Sarith.
“He walked over from the Australian Embassy. He pulled down the front window and grabbed my tie, dragged me out of the car to the front and started beating,” said Saphea, who still suffers from memory loss on account of the attack.
“Before I was dragged out, there was a demonstrator with a walkie-talkie who asked my driver what my name was. He answered ‘Kong Saphea’.
“Then a person, who I heard through the walkie-talkie, said ‘beat him seriously’.”
* * *
Bun Heang, the Bodyguard Unit chief, yesterday said he did not know about the photo taken from within the base but was not concerned.
“Whoever says whatever, we do not have a headache,” he said.
However, a source who has regular contact with, and deep knowledge of, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, said they had been informed by an RCAF source that senior commanders were aware bodyguard insiders had leaked the photograph – and others showing suspect Sarith in uniform – in the wake of the attack.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat yesterday suggested the photograph from within the Takhmao base – which he claimed to be unaware of – may be a fake.
“Sometimes pictures can confuse and we don’t know. It could be Photoshopped to set up the story,” Socheat.
If it was the case that the three suspects were bodyguards, then “it is an individual issue, not a unit issue”, he added.
Paul Chambers, a professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University who has researched the premier’s control over Cambodia’s military, said that was unlikely.
“The bodyguards act under the personal control of Hun Sen. It is thus extremely likely that whatever actions they do reflect the will of the executive,” he said via email.
Additional reporting by Daniel Nass