A small gathering to mark World Teachers’ Day at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park briefly descended into chaos Sunday when a crowd of rally-goers wrested a concealed gun from a man working for the Ministry of Information after he forced his way to the front of the crowd.
In defiance of an edict handed down by City Hall last week banning the rally, the event opened at about 8:30 a.m. with representatives from the opposition-aligned Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) taking to a small wooden stool in the middle of the park to call for teachers’ salaries of 1 million riel per month, about $250, as well as better resourced schools.
“We say ‘please’ to the new government—please increase our salaries, at least for primary school teachers—and don’t discriminate against our union members,” CITA’s Phnom Penh representative told the crowd of about 150 people, before denouncing the decision to ban the rally.
“City Hall did not allow us to do this, but we have strongly rejected this. It is the right of students, teachers and the people to express themselves in Freedom Park,” he said.
In the background—and in plain view of the small rally—large trucks filled with military police officers carrying shields, batons and wearing body armor streamed down the adjacent Street 110 for about half-an-hour, making for the eastern end of Freedom Park where they formed a police line.
At about 9:25 a.m., as the CITA representative for Kompong Speu province was beginning his speech, a tussle broke out at the front of the crowd, with rally-goers seizing a man wearing a press identification card, who had been taking photographs of about 20 monks seated behind rally leaders, and seized a pistol from his grip.
CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, who was also standing at the front of the small gathering, said she had confronted the man—who had been wearing a baseball cap, dark glasses and earphones—after some of her staff had alerted her that he was carrying a pistol.
“Our people started seeing him, he came out from somewhere and we overhead some conversation—he came with other people—and he came straight for the monks,” Ms. Sochua said, adding that the man had arrived with five others.
“I went very close to him and felt something very solid and realized he had a gun,” Ms. Sochua explained.
“He told me ‘I don’t have a gun,’ and I said, ‘Well what is in your shirt?’ and he started walking away.”
In the ensuing chaos amid shouts that an armed man was among the audience near Ms. Sochua, Yang Sophoan, 33, a participant at the rally, wrested the pistol from the man.
“They pushed him through to the front, and we saw his press card and we saw something in his hand—the pistol,” Ms. Sophoan said. “We took his card and then we tapped at the gun, and then I took that too,” she said, adding that the crowd believed the man planned to kill CITA President Mr. Chhun.
“What they were planning was aimed at Rong Chhun,” she explained, referring to the outspoken and openly pro-opposition president of the teacher’s association.
Ms. Sophoan said that she later handed over the weapon—a Chinese-made K-54 pistol, which is standard issue for police officers—as well as the man’s press card and another identity card to Ms. Sochua and fellow CNRP lawmaker-elect Son Chhay.
After the crowd had dragged the man to the eastern reaches of Freedom Park—with some calling him “traitor,” others yelling “arrest him, kill him!” and one man running up and jabbing him in the head with his fist—military police seized him, dragged him behind their police line and disallowed others through.
Some rally-goers said they had seen the man being taken away without handcuffs on a motorcycle with two other men, and Licadho technical supervisor Am Sam Ath said later that the man had been sent to hospital with minor injuries.
A tense conversation between Mr. Chhay, Ms. Sochua and Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth followed shortly after, when the CNRP lawmakers-elect handed over the man’s pistol and identity cards but refused to identify Ms. Sophoan, the woman who had seized the pistol from the man, due to concerns for her safety.
“[We] need the person who took the gun from him because we need to do the investigation,” Mr. Chanpiseth said, before raising his finger to Mr. Chhay and accusing him of disrespecting state institutions by not handing over Ms. Sophoan.
Ms. Sochua then handed out photocopies of the gunman’s press card, which identified him as Poeurng Choeurn, a “reporter” for the “Mid.P.P” news agency website, which is the Phnom Penh Municipal Information Department. The MID website on Sunday displayed an “under construction” message, but registration records for the agency’s website show it belongs to MID Director Khuth Samkhann.
Mr. Samkhann confirmed by telephone that Mr. Choeurn was an employee of MID, which he explained was the Phnom Penh arm of the Ministry of Information, and said that he was on his way back to the capital from the provinces to deal with the issue of Mr. Choeurn.
“He [Mr. Choeurn] has been working for our department since 2012 and was in charge of the website for the department,” Mr. Samkhann said. “I don’t know how he got the gun.”
“He is a gentle man and he covers information for us such as social events and other fields. He is an expert in I.T. so I assigned him to work on the agency’s website,” he said, without elaborating on the type of news MID produces for its non-functioning website.
A seemingly defunct Facebook page for the MID agency—bearing the logo of the Ministry of Information as both of its main pictures—shows a number of news stories from February and July 2012, including articles about the Ministry of Information banning a newspaper from publishing violent photos.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that the Information Ministry armed its staff or sent people to spy on opposition-aligned rallies.
“We don’t have anybody wearing guns nor spies,” he said. “We send only cameraman and this is more than enough.”
Asked specifically about the case of Poeurng Choeurn, Mr. Kanharith said: “I can assure you we don’t have any staff wearing gun[s].”
The other identity card for Mr. Choeurn, which was in the same pouch as his press card, identifies him as “Poeng Choeun,” a sales representative for Mongkolrith Import & Export Co. Ltd.
However, a person reached at the firm’s telephone number denied employing or even knowing Mr. Choeurn.
The discovery of an armed man at the opposition-aligned rally follows just days after CPP parliamentarian and party spokesman Cheam Yeap raised the prospect of CNRP president Sam Rainsy dying in a plane crash. Mr. Yeap said his comment was not a threat, merely an observation.
At the end of the rally Sunday, Mr. Chhun, the CITA president, denounced the presence of the armed man at the event, explaining that the planned march of the teachers, students and monks to bring their demands to the Ministry of Education on the other side of the city would be postponed because of the “poor situation” of the morning.
“All of us teachers are ashamed,” Mr. Chhun told the crowd, pointing to the still-present line of scores of military police at the park’s east, behind which Mr. Choeurn had disappeared.
“Look over there at the police,” Mr. Chhun said. “We are just teachers, and they’ve deployed military police around the city.”
“Look at all those police, and ask ‘Why?’ Why? Because they are afraid of teachers!” he exclaimed as he brought the rally to a close just before 10:30 a.m.
Nay Vanda, the deputy head of monitoring for local rights group Adhoc, said that the evidence taken by the court prosecutor from Ms. Sochua and Mr. Chhay had been handed over for processing to the Wat Phnom office of the national police, whose branch lies across from Freedom Park.
“We would like the relevant authorities as well as the prosecutor to bring charges against this suspect,” Mr. Vanda said.
“It was seen by everyone here that this man had civilian clothes but had a gun, and this has to be investigated.”
National Military Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kheng Tito could not be contacted for comment on the fate of Mr. Choeurn.