The owner of Cambodia’s popular ABC radio station expressly declined to thank Prime Minister Hun Sen for donating three “intervention vehicles” to the station’s humanitarian arm, likening the seizure and abrupt return of an unlicensed ABC ambulance to a war victory and describing government bureaucrats as “monkeys.”
The comments made by Seng Bunveng, a controversial businessman and radio host better known as “Aja A,” capped off a turbulent five days that began when Phnom Penh health officials impounded an ABC ambulance on Thursday because it lacked the necessary licensing, equipment and medical personnel to operate as an emergency vehicle—and was being used to transport guava juice sold by the station.
ABC claimed the ambulance was also used to transport corpses for poor families and relief supplies during natural disasters, and fans took to the airwaves to defend the station’s use of the vehicle.
Municipal health department director Sok Sokun responded by threatening to sue Mr. Bunveng for calling his staff “beasts” for seizing the ambulance.
On Saturday, the prime minister stepped into the fray, calling in to ABC to announce on air that Mr. Sokun would be stripped of his position and promising the vehicle’s return, and the donation of two more. On Monday, he appointed Mr. Sokun deputy director of the Health Ministry’s technical health department—an apparent demotion.
During a ceremony at City Hall on Tuesday, Mr. Bunveng accepted two new 12-seater vans and a pickup truck paid for by Mr. Hun Sen, but declined to thank his benefactor.
“I did not come here today to thank Samdech Techo,” he told a crowd of selfie-snapping onlookers, using an honorific for the prime minister.
“We do not thank him for giving us the vehicles because Samdech simply gave them to us to serve his government,” he said. “The government belongs to him; it does not belong to Aja A. He just used Aja A to serve him.”
Dressed in all black save a blue krama, the ponytailed 70-something said he had not wanted to accept the truck—as only two vehicles had been promised—but that Mr. Hun Sen had forced his hand.
“He understood that the vehicle that we used was against the law, and stated that from now on, you must follow the law,” Mr. Bunveng said.
The ambulance scandal had forced the prime minister to come to terms with the power of the media, he said, boasting that the journalists were behind only the premier, the parliament and the judiciary in its influence.
Mr. Hun Sen “today gave the green light for all of us journalists, who are the fourth power,” he said.
Mr. Bunveng is the fourth largest media owner in the country based on audience share, according to Who Owns The Media, a website maintained by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and Reporters Without Borders. ABC’s independence and integrity was called into question in 2013 when Mr. Bunveng said the military would stage a coup if the opposition won that year’s national election.
“Blood will flow through the streets,” he warned at the time.
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s ceremony, Mr. Bunveng said Mr. Sokun’s move to seize ABC’s ambulance last week had amounted to a declaration of war.
“But the war is over now because we won,” he said. “We just wanted to cut the neck of the chicken to show monkeys in any department that you must serve the people.”
Mr. Bunveng brushed off criticism that ABC should have registered the ambulance after it was donated to the station in 2011, suggesting that the oversight was a small price to pay for the good it did.
“When you watch Hollywood movies, police will take a car from a driver to chase the thieves. So our situation is similar—we make mistakes but the result we produce is advantageous,” he said, before departing the City Hall compound in the bed of the donated truck, waving alongside a pack of supporters.
Municipal governor Pa Socheatvong, who awarded Mr. Bunveng a symbolic oversized key to the new vehicles, chalked up the ambulance seizure to a “misunderstanding” but said the new vans should be referred to as “intervention vehicles” and used in compliance with all laws.
“Patients cannot use these intervention vehicles—they must call an ambulance,” the governor said.
Neither ABC nor the prime minister have denied that the ambulance was operating unlawfully. Mr. Hun Sen acknowledged that Mr. Sokun’s officials, 16 of whom are trained as judicial police, had the right to stop the ambulance last week, but said in a Facebook post on Sunday that Mr. Sokun’s role had required that he “ask for leadership and coordination from prosecutors in accordance with existing procedure.”
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said on Tuesday, however, that judicial police had the right to seize equipment and make arrests without immediately involving the courts.
Judicial police can act without a warrant if they observe a crime in progress, he explained. “They can prosecute later,” he said.