The bodyguards of Prime Minister Hun Sen have donned a new logo showing a serpent that closely resembles the revered stone naga of Preah Vihear temple, a site associated with national pride and, for some, supernatural power.
A shoulder patch with the seven-headed serpent recently appeared on the uniforms of the premier’s bodyguards, a secretive and highly trained force that are believed to number several thousands, replacing a similar patch with the initials of the premier “HS” in the Khmer alphabet.
Asked about the new logo, military officials cited the symbolism of the naga, a serpent in Cambodian mythology that is associated with water and has been used as a decorative motif in many ancient Khmer temples.
“Naga represents the 7th of January,” said Lieutenant General Hing Bunheang, commander of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, referring to the seven-headed serpent and the date in 1979 when Vietnamese and Cambodian forces liberated the capital from the Khmer Rouge.
“Rice symbolizes peace and the flag represents the national military,” Mr Bunheang added, referring to other elements on the new insignia.
The naga at Preah Vihear was the focus of a Buddhist ceremony last April presided over by General Bunheang, who watched as a supporting cable was removed from a sculpture of a seven-headed naga. The cable was believed to have choked the temple’s guardian spirit, allowing it to be injured by shrapnel from a Thai grenade that month during a firefight.
“After the fighting, the naga came in dreams to tell [seniors officials] it was tied up,” a soldier said at the temple a few months after the event. “They had a traditional Buddhist ceremony and during it the clear sky turned dark like night and clouds surrounded the ceremony.”
Although none of the officials contacted for this story acknowledged a connection to Preah Vihear temple, the serpent on the new patch clearly resembles the one found at the 11th century temple.
Kou Vet, chief of the archaeology unit at JASA, or the Japan-Apsara Safeguarding Angkor program, a joint preservation effort, said different temples have different styles of naga.
“The naga at Preah Vihear is like real nature,” Mr Vet said. “It’s not so decorative like [at] Angkor Wat or Bayon.”
The difference between the nagas from Preah Vihear and Angkor Wat, for example, can be seen on the 2,000 and 500 riel notes. The naga below the picture of Angkor Wat on the 500-riel note has a decorative element surrounding the heads of the serpents. On the 2,000 riel note, under the picture of Preah Vihear, the heads of the serpents are bare, as on the new bodyguard logo.
Political observer Chea Vannath said she had not noticed the new bodyguards’ logo but she speculated that the naga on the new patches might have a double meaning.
This animal “relates to the year of [Hun Sen’s] birth,” she said of the naga. According to Hun Sen’s authorized biography, he was born in 1952, which is the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar and the year of the naga in the traditional Khmer calendar.
Im Borin, an adviser with the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said the naga is considered a benevolent and powerful animal in Cambodia.
Using a naga from Preah Vihear carries strong associations, Ms Vannath noted.
“HS is just the name of one person,” Ms Vannath continued, referring to the old logo with the premier’s initials. “The naga of Preah Vihear, it can mean two things: the person, or individual, and the achievement of that person.”
Members of the bodyguard unit interviewed recently at Mr Hun Sen’s compound in Phnom Penh and at the Bodyguard Headquarters in Kandal province’s Takhmau town said they have been wearing the new shoulder patch for two or three months.
“They love this animal. That is why they get this as a symbol,” said a soldier at the Bodyguard Headquarters, the entrance to which is about 100 meters from the prime minister’s Kandal province compound.
The soldier, who like others would not give his name, claimed that the insignia change was made because the bodyguard unit is no longer part of the RCAF 70th Infantry Brigade.
“We just change it since the bodyguard is no longer under Brigade 70’s control,” he said. “It is now called Bodyguard Headquarters.”
A directive from September establishes the bodyguard headquarters and puts it under the direct control of the prime minister, with a duty to protect the premier and his family, as well as other people or institutions as ordered by the prime minister.
Since its creation in 1995, the bodyguard unit has been under the direct control of the prime minister. The September directive does not mention the 70th Infantry Brigade, which environmental campaigners Global Witness described in 2007 as a private army for the prime minister.
According to Carlyle Thayer, a military expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, the 70th Infantry Brigade is also outside the normal chain of command of RCAF and also reports to the prime minister.
The brigade is responsible for protecting seniors leaders and international visitors, but it has been assigned military duties in the past and it serves as a counter to any possible coup attempt, according to Mr Thayer.
The bodyguard unit might range in size from 2,400 to 6,000 persons, according to estimates from “Military Balance 2009,” published by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Cambodian Ministry of Defense officials said he did not know the size of the 70th Infantry Brigade or the Prime Minister bodyguard unit.