Seng Sovannara, previously the president of the pro-CPP Pagoda Children, Intelligentsia and Students Association, otherwise known as the Pagoda Boys, has been named deputy governor of Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, Deputy Municipal Governor Map Sarin said Wednesday.
Seng Sovannara is among 14 new Phnom Penh deputy district governors, some from the Interior Ministry and others from RCAF, whose appointments were announced by the Interior Ministry at the municipality on Monday, Map Sarin said.
Staunch supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen and previously recipients of government funding, the Pagoda Boys have been accused of responding violently to anti-government protests. They were named in a 2003 US State Department report as having been present during the 2003 anti-Thai riots, in which the Thai Embassy and around a dozen Thai businesses were destroyed. Seng Sovannara denied at the time that any members of his organization took part in the anti-Thai demonstrations.
It was unclear Wednesday whether Seng Sovannara is still affiliated with the pro-CPP group, and Seng Sovannara declined comment on his appointment when contacted by a reporter.
“I am so busy helping the people. I do not have enough time to talk to journalists,” he said by telephone.
Some observers expressed surprise at the news, questioning Seng Sovannara’s qualifications and calling the move a reward for loyalty to the ruling party.
Daun Penh District Governor Sok Sambath said Seng Sovannara might work on social issues and security in the district when the municipality gives its final approval to the appointment. “I am preparing the office for him to sit and work,” Sok Sambath said.
Until then, Sok Sambath said, Seng Sovannara remains a civil servant in the Interior Ministry’s administration department.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said Seng Sovannara’s appointment was not unusual. “In the law it is not prohibited to appoint someone who has been the chairman of an association to be a government official,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak added that he, too, spent time in a pagoda and is now a three-star police general.
“It is very dangerous to say the pagoda boys are bad,” he added.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined comment.
In a 2003 interview, Seng Sovannara said the Pagoda Boys opposed anyone seeking Hun Sen’s resignation. “We will keep our stand to crack down on inappropriate demonstrations in order to support the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said at the time.
In a recent public sighting, he was spotted by reporters at the studios of state-controlled TVK in July 2004, during the filming of a confession of a little-known Sam Rainsy Party activist, Heng Savy, who admitted to involvement in jailed opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy’s so-called shadow army.
Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath said she did not want to discriminate unfairly against Seng Sovannara, but questioned what qualified him for the new position.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay lambasted the appointment, charging that it was intended to exert control over the public rather than to provide services.
“The government rewards anyone from the pro-government party,” Son Chhay said, adding that he was worried that people’s rights would suffer.
He noted that Daun Penh district is particularly sensitive, as it contains the Royal Palace and the National Assembly, where protesters sometimes gather.