General Hing Bun Heang, the head of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit sanctioned by the U.S. for alleged human rights abuses, has been accused by a Johnson & Johnson-linked orphanage of attempting to take over its prime waterfront land.
The general, however, said on Friday that he was simply in charge of handling and resolving public complaints for the government, and he could not even remember the case among the hundreds he deals with every year.
“I don’t know where the land is,” he said. “And I do not have land.”
“If you know that His Excellency Hing Bun Heang has land, please help make a land title for him,” Bun Heang said.
Part of his job was receiving public complaints and reporting to the Council of Ministers, “and if necessary ask the opinion from the top leader,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Bun Heang added that his name was frequently thrown around and misused.
“Be careful about people using Hing Bun Heang’s name,” he said. “Many make such a mistake.”
Sovann Komar, an orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district set up in 2003 by the late Johnson & Johnson heiress Elizabeth Johnson, has become embroiled in controversy over the past couple of years, with new management accusing its former director of child abuse and fraud.
The ex-director, Sothea Arun, is currently on trial for alleged child torture at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, with a verdict due on February 10.
Bradley Gordon, Sovann Komar’s lawyer, said that in August 2019, just after new management replaced Arun, “there was an attempt to take over the NGO and the land” by “one general.” Gordon later named the general as Bun Heang.
He said the Social Affairs Ministry set up a committee to resolve the issues around Sovann Komar, and at a committee meeting in October, attended by about 30 people, the ministry’s social affairs department director Mom Chandany had said Bun Heang was also trying to resolve the issues.
Reached on Friday, Chandany would only say that she did not know anything.
Gordon also supplied a photograph, which he said was posted online by Arun’s wife on December 31, showing Arun with Bun Heang in the general’s office.
According to meeting minutes from December provided to VOD by Gordon, the committee ruled to temporarily remove Sovann Komar’s new management team until disputes were resolved. In response, Gordon sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen this month asking for his intervention.
On Friday, Gordon said the ministry’s committee had now been dissolved, and he expected Sovann Komar would sign a new agreement with the Social Affairs Ministry on Monday following a “very productive” meeting there on Thursday.
He said senior officials had stepped in to help, but declined to name exactly who supported Sovann Komar’s case.
“A lot of senior people behind the scenes are very unhappy with seeing this kind of case with extensive child abuse,” he said, adding that there was “incredible public support” for the new management bringing to light the abuse allegations.
Touch Channy, director of the ministry’s technical department, who headed the Social Affairs Ministry committee looking at Sovann Komar, said on Friday that there had only been a reshuffle.
“The committee is not dissolved, but we just changed the head of the committee … [and] we changed composition of the leaders,” Channy said.
“In relation to the work, I would not like to elaborate. In fact, I have a lot of information, and many media have asked since yesterday. But I would ask for understanding because elaborating on it will be long, and become a back and forth argument that won’t end, and it could lead to other disputes,” he said. “For now, each side has loosened up their tensions, and it has relaxed.”
In an open letter dated Wednesday and posted on Sovann Komar’s Facebook page on Friday, the Johnson family said they hired Gordon, an American attorney, in 2018, about a year after Elizabeth Johnson’s death, “to lead a comprehensive operational and financial audit of Sovann Komar.”
“Mr. Gordon’s team uncovered extraordinary abuse and fraud conducted and supervised by the very individuals who were charged with protecting the children against exactly this type of inappropriate behavior,” the family said.
“Our team and key witnesses have made tremendous sacrifices this past two years to protect the children and to find justice and have subjected themselves to great personal danger,” they added. “They should be fully protected by Cambodian society and not subjected to harassment or fear of arrest.”
Friends International spokesperson James Sutherland said a representative from the organization attended meetings of the committee established by the Social Affairs Ministry “purely in an advisory capacity on the child protection elements.” Save the Children and Unicef, which Gordon and meeting minutes said were also present, did not respond to questions as of Friday evening.
The U.S. sanctioned General Bun Heang under its Global Magnitsky Act in 2018, alleging he and the prime minister’s bodyguard unit were tied to violent attacks against the opposition, including in 1997 and 2015.