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Cracking down 101

Cracking down 101

A deal to end the political deadlock may reduce demonstrations in the streets, but the authorities are leaving nothing to chance – Daun Penh’s notorious district security guards are set to receive proper training under a "joint venture" with private security firms.

A sub-decree signed in March and obtained by the Post shows that the baton-wielding district security guards – regularly behind the violent beatings of protesters in the post-election period – are overseen by the Ministry of Interior.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, who said in January the guards lack government security training, says they have since taken part in a ministry training scheme.

“Municipal authorities have given vocational training to the security guards about how to ease the traffic jams during protests, how to protect the protesters and avoid violations,” he said.

But there are plans for more.

Interior Ministry officials, on the order of Minister Sar Kheng, held a meeting with private security companies early last month and are considering forming a “joint-operation” with two private firms to provide public order training to the mixed security forces, which includes the district guards, a source present at the meeting told the Post.

Little has been known about the make-up of the notorious Daun Penh district security guards since they emerged after last year’s election as the front-line enforcers of government-approved crackdowns on dissent.

While some government officials have maintained that the guards – often dressed in navy blue and wearing motorcycle helmets – are employed through private companies, City Hall has said they are recruited by the Ministry of Interior.

Proof that the guards are not merely thugs-for-hire but part of a structure reporting directly to the ministry is spelled out in a sub-decree passed in the National Assembly on March 31 and signed by Kheng.

The document outlines the make-up of the mixed security forces, which includes the Daun Penh district security guards.

It shows that Daun Penh district’s Unified Command is chaired by district governor Kouch Chamroeun, with deputy district governor Sok Penh Vuth, who has often led the security guards in forcefully crushing peaceful protests, as permanent vice-chairman.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Violent crackdowns by the guards have multiplied since they dismantled a Cambodia National Rescue Party protest camp in Freedom Park on January 4.

But during a CNRP protest next to the park earlier this month, the tables were turned and numerous security guards were isolated, stripped of their uniforms and mercilessly attacked by the crowd.

One of the guards injured during the violence was 58-year-old Meas Phoeun.

Phoeun claims that he is not usually deployed to protests, which he says are the domain of a second group of security guards consisting of young, angry men.

He says he was recruited by his commune chief and is paid by the Interior Ministry, but another group who sport the same blue uniform form a separate unit.

“We are gentle; we never beat the people or the protesters,” he said. “The security guards in my commune . . . have blue uniforms but no batons or shields.”

“But the Daun Penh district guards have batons, body armour and helmets, and they have hot tempers.”

Phoeun said he had not asked where they came from, because he was “afraid they would be angry”.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan says that the vanguard of the district forces operate under an agency licensed by the ministry.

“I understand that the district security [forces] were established by licence from the Ministry of Interior. They are led by former policemen or retired policemen,” he said. “It’s a VIP agency. They are hired by the government, but they don’t have a retirement plan or anything.”

The “agency” is thought to have been established under former district governor Sok Sambath, who is now governor of Meanchey district.

In 2005, Sambath appointed Seng Sovannara, formerly head of the pro-CPP Pagoda Children, Intelligentsia and Students Association, commonly known as the Pagoda Boys, to the deputy governor job after years of accusations that he led violent crackdowns on labour disputes and anti-government protests.

Sovannara, now an under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said he still heads the Pagoda Boys, but declined to comment on whether its members were counted in the ranks of the district guards.

“I still help and control this organisation, because I love my job,” he said.

“Now we can see that there are many demonstrations if compared to before . . . Now the demonstrations are more serious. If the demonstrators use violence, the security forces have to maintain order.

“Our job is still the same, even though the public might not notice us as much.”

The Pagoda Boys, a registered NGO, were accused by the US State Department of involvement in the anti-Thai riots of 2003, as well as being denounced by unionists for allegedly breaking up dozens of protests over the years.

Mu Sochua, an elected CNRP politician, who was charged and imprisoned last month for her supposed role in opposition supporters’ violent beatings of the guards, said she would demand answers about the guards’ violence from the Interior Ministry as a “top priority” when the CNRP takes its seats in parliament.

“To have a deputy district governor standing there giving orders which aim to maim is totally a violation of human rights,” she said. “Sok Penh Vuth cannot give orders by himself.”

Training for the guards, she added, would only be beneficial if it helps the guards protect, rather than attack, the public.

“If the training is how to use force to control protest, then it is ineffective,” she said.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA AND SEN DAVID

This story has been updated to clarify comments made by City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.

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