ByThey regard themselves as the loyal sons of Prime Minister Hun Sen and have never shied from reacting with violence to protect and propagate the policies of the premier’s ruling CPP.
The 4,000-strong Pagoda Boys claim they are youth volunteers, inspired by Hun Sen’s leadership to their unselfish acts of protecting society against what they feel are the radical and destabilizing demands of workers unions and student movements.
“We are ready to sacrifice everything,” says Seng Sovannara, president of the Pagoda Children, Intelligentsia and Students Association—the group’s full title.
“Some demonstrations are correct, but some are inappropriate. We will keep our stand to crack down on inappropriate demonstrations in order to support the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Seng Sovannara said recently.
Among the protesters considered inappropriate by the Pagoda Boys are workers who strike for higher wages, Seng Sovannara said.
“[Foreign] investors will stop investing in Cambodia and go to other places,” he said.
Most recently, the Pagoda Boys made a show of force when a coalition of unions and students were to meet on Feb 9 to plan a protest calling for the release of Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando and Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor) newspaper Editor En Chan Sivatha and for the resignation of Hun Sen. The demonstration was called off when more than 200 Pagoda Boys gathered near the meeting place to show support for Hun Sen.
Counterprotests are their specialty, and the Pagoda Boys excel in “cracking down” on student and union protests.
Pagoda Boys Secretary-General Yi Mao said he orders his followers not to use violence. “But when the other groups use violence, we will react,” he said.
Denying the movement gets direct orders from the government, Seng Sovannara said his organization has an information department focused on finding out about protests, “then protecting against all demonstrations that are against Hun Sen’s government.”
“Samdech Hun Sen led us to liberation [on Jan 7, 1979]. Otherwise, Cambodia would have become a ghost territory. [Hun Sen] leads us to peace and development so we are against any idea that seeks the prime minister’s resignation,” he added.
The Pagoda Boys are a fully recognized local NGO and receive an undisclosed amount of money from the government, Seng Sovannara said. He denied that the movement receives an alleged $10,000 each year from government coffers.
Garment workers and student unions have alleged that the Pagoda Boys are connected to the government and receive $10,000 annually, and they claim to have evidence to support it.
“The government uses civilians against civilians to confuse the international community, so the government will not be punished,” said Sun Sokunmelea, secretary general of the Democratic Front for Khmer Students and Intellectuals who have been regular targets of the Pagoda Boys’ counter-protest crackdowns.
Wrapped in the facade of a grassroots movement and based in Buddhist temples, the Pagoda Boys seem to outsiders, particularly international observers, to be a genuine movement, she said.
But, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers—a union with members in 22 garment factories—claim they have obtained a letter alleged to have been penned in 2000 by the Pagoda Boys and sent to Hun Sen detailing their “crackdowns.”
“We would like to pay respect to Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen about our achievement after we received good advice, education and put it into practice,” the alleged letter states.
The letter went on to detail six operations to crack down on student protests, two operations to distribute leaflets against the Sam Rainsy Party and information on the whereabouts of the since-deceased kidnapper Rasmach.
The Pagoda Boys wrote they had spent only $2,255 of the $10,000 of their funds for 2000, but had increased membership by 84 boys in 27 pagodas, according to the letter that was also addressed to the chief of military intelligence, General Mol Roeup.
Seng Sovannara did not deny the existence of the letter.
However, Mol Roeup said that neither he nor Hun Sen are linked to the movement. He defended the Pagoda Boys’ right to “love the country.”
“The association is not involved with Prime Minister Hun Sen. But as an association they are allowed to have their own stance and beliefs. There is no need for someone to order them,” Mol Roeup said.
Mol Roeup also denied the Pagoda Boys received $10,000 in funds from the government.
“The group always tries to prevent factory workers and poor people from protesting to demand increased salary,” said Kao Poeun, and adviser to the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers.
In 2001, the Pagoda Boys broke up three workers’ protests confiscating banners, a megaphone and destroyed union cameras, Kao Poeun said.
Phoung Montry, spokesman for the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said he was beaten unconscious in December 2001 by a mob of young men he thought to be Pagoda Boys who broke up a union protest at a factory in Kandal province.
Military police and provincial police officers stood by as the mob attacked the strikers and union representatives, Phoung Montry said. When the workers began to fight back, their attackers fled inside the factory gates, he said.
Mau Moeung Yat, president of the Democratic Front for Khmer Students and Intellectuals, said more than 30 of their demonstrations have been broken up by the Pagoda Boys since 2000.
Seng Sovannara did not deny the allegations, other than to say his organization had prevented “inappropriate protests.”
The Pagoda Boys use violence, but they are also using Buddhist temples as a base for their highly political activities, and that should not be allowed, Mau Moeung Yat said.