When teachers union supporters at Freedom Park caught sight of a gun at the hip of a purported journalist snapping photographs at their peaceful rally on Sunday morning, they wasted little time stripping him of his gun – and clothes – and beating him.
The group had unwittingly outed the man – whose press credential identified him as a reporter for a website called MID PP – as an undercover police officer.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith yesterday identified the man to the Post as Poerung Choeun, a military officer working with the research and security office of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit.
Police forces across the globe routinely investigate crimes and gather invaluable intelligence using undercover officers. But NGOs, monks and a politician yesterday said the Cambodian government is consistently sending undercover police to political demonstrations primarily as an intimidation tactic, which has been used even more since July’s national election.
“It’s very questionable, how [the government] uses these public servants to do all this,” Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), said.
Protesters at the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association turned on Choeun – who witnesses say was photographing monks at the rally – soon after Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Mu Sochua noticed his weapon and confronted him.
His cover blown, Choeun endured blows from the angry crowd before police were able to separate him from his assailants.
Choeun was treated and released from Calmette Hospital on Sunday, and Phnom Penh municipal police are investigating the incident after he filed an official complaint, Lieutenant General Vong Pisen, deputy commander of the National Military Police, said.
The attack marks the first time protesters physically attacked an undercover officer at a demonstration, military police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday, but not the first aggressive action against one.
Land rights activists surrounded and chased Sor Chenda away from a demonstration at Wat Phnom last month, after he admitted his identity as an undercover officer posing as a Voice of America photographer. The Boeung Kak and Borei Keila community demonstrators chased off several others they accused of working with police at the protest three weeks ago.
Those incidents seem to have done little to dull authorities’ belief in the strategy’s value.
“We will increase and strengthen our undercover police presence at demonstrations in the future,” Tito said yesterday. Undercover officers deployed at demonstrations gather useful information from those in attendance, he added.
A rise in undercover police noticed at rallies had already become apparent in the past couple of months, Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for rights group Licadho, said.
“Most of the gatherings following the elections have been met with a totally unjustifiable amount of armed forces,” Pellerin said. “It’s just kind of a basic intimidation tactic.”
No law on the books in Cambodia prevents law enforcement from using undercover police at political demonstrations, Virak said. But the government uses these officers excessively in an attempt to create a chilling effect on protesters.
Heightened government monitoring of monks’ increasingly visible role at these rallies has led the Independent Monk Network to form a three-member team dedicated to photographing people they believe are undercover police at demonstrations, founder But Buntenh told the Post. “When police take our picture, we take their picture back,” Buntenh chuckled.
But the government’s effort to silence political dissent among the robed ranks is no laughing matter.
Even before the Kingdom’s highest monks called on the clergy to refrain from joining any political demonstrations last month, Buntenh said, photographs of monks taken by undercover police have been used as blackmail.
“They used to say ‘I have your picture … and if you do not stop [demonstrating], I will take this picture to your [superior]’,” Buntenh said.
Several unconfirmed incidents of people suffering retribution at the hands of their bosses due to their attendance at political demonstrations have come to the attention of Rotana Pin, an opposition lawmaker-elect.
Two teachers and a secretary at Sar Mor primary school in Takeo province filed complaints against school officials after, they say, the school system transferred them all to schools far away from their homes because of their attendance at CNRP pre-election rallies.
Evidence of their employees’ attendance at the rallies gathered by undercover police likely tipped off Sar Mor officials to their employees off-hours activities, Pin said.
“It is not right, this kind of intimidation,” said Pin, who also objected to police out of uniform showing up at peaceful rallies armed. “We don’t want any undercover officer with a gun standing next to us.”
Unlike in the past, however, Pin said these intimidation tactics lately seem to show less success in thwarting demonstrators.
“People get a lot more information than in the past. They know their rights.”