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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Crime and Punishment

by Bronwyn Sloan

July 2005

Phnom Penh City Hall finally came out with the figures this month to confirm what everyone has been saying for months; violent crime is more prevalent in the capital now than perhaps ever before. In the first six months of 2005, reported incidents increased a staggering 85-fold over the same six months of last year, according to a City Hall report.

In a country where people are reluctant to use the overburdened and under resourced police force, whose members pay for their own bullets and petrol and so supplement their dollar a day income by charging a minimum of $5 for a simple police report, police stations around the city recorded a total of 297 armed robberies between January and June of this year, or around 50 a month. An incredible 275 motorbikes were also reported stolen, many at gunpoint.

These robberies resulted in the deaths of 34 of the victims and 135 people being seriously injured, according to the City Hall report. Of a total of 1,088 arrests, 14 other alleged murderers were also detained and 15 criminals "died" ­ no further details on that one. There were seven rapes reported.

Of course, these figures are the tip of the iceberg, and police and city hall officials were not backward about being forward about what they believe has caused this crime wave. Gamblers who went looking for lady luck and found a loan shark instead are on the increase, officials say, and most of all, drugs, particularly the methamphetamine yaba, have Cambodia by the throat.

The solution? That was where the report was a bit light on. Sensible suggestions such as crackdowns on drug traffickers and dealers and gambling dens were outlined, as was a vow to increase protection of tourists (again no details there, but closing the Heart of Darkness would seem just as good a start as any).

But City Hall's ominous promise to increase patrols and controls on guesthouses to nab foreigners up to no good seemed a little incongruous. After all, it's mainly Cambodians selling the foreigners the drugs which result in a seemingly endless parade of fatal overdoses coming out of not only guesthouses, but in some cases high class hotels. Foreign pedophiles are the other major criminal group represented amongst the handful of non-ASEAN prisoners in the jails, and that's about it for crimes commonly committed by foreigners.

It isn't foreigners hiring handguns and handling all those hold-ups, guys. But you can be damned sure that the first foreigner to get killed will make world news and kill the tourism industry with him or her, so maybe tackle the problem of armed robbery first, and spend a little less manpower on haunting backpacker quarters hassling travelers for travel documents in what will almost certainly turn into an extortion racket and do little to combat the real problem. In the meantime, tourists should remember that you do not walk at night, you should try to find a moto taxi driver you can trust, avoid dark streets as much as possible and do not take more money or valuables out with you than you need, and especially not passports and travel documents. If possible, avoid carrying a bag.

Bag snatches are epidemic, and can result in the passenger being pulled off a speeding bike along with their belongings, breaking bones and sometimes resulting in serious head injuries. It should be said that Phnom Penh is no more dangerous than any capital in the world, but be aware that crime is a serious problem and we are now far from the days of bored cops and soldiers with at least some weapons training being responsible for many of the armed robberies. Now, it might just be a strung out kid with a handgun he has no idea how to handle facing you, and that is a far more frightening prospect.

A friend knows of a gang from Kien Svay district just outside of town who were making a small fortune by hiring a K-54 handgun for a few dollars a day and holding people up for their phones, which in some cases in phone obsessed Cambodia are worth hundreds of dollars. No phone shop I have seen yet has any qualms about buying second hand phones from anyone coming in off the street, so maybe looking at ways to deter the market from buying stolen goods might also be in order. In the case of the Kien Svay boys, as in many of these crimes, the motive was to raise money to buy yaba.

Yaba has become such a serious problem in this country that Graham Shaw from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said recently its abuse and the crippling backlash it has already begun to inflict had the potential to impact on Cambodia's GDP. That's a sobering thought.

Speaking of yaba, a streetkid well known to be partial to the drug and who has come of age, running many of the younger children in the river area, has been heard boasting about setting foreign men up on pedophilia charges. Although he is well and truly 18, and there is no law against homosexuality in Cambodia, he says he makes friends with foreign men, goes back to their homes or hotels, and when he is inside, allows his younger "friends" to visit, snapping a few quick pictures before calling the authorities, who are usually not far away.

This may be complete fantasy on his part, but it does seem that a few boys have become serial witnesses in sexual offense cases. No doubt most foreigners charged with sex offenses in this country are guilty, no doubt the youth concerned here has been abused and quite possibly ended up addicted to yaba because of his background, but turning a blind eye to any sort of child abuse in the interests of revenue raising is wrong, and if these child witnesses are appearing in two or three trials, they are obviously not being removed from their precarious situations and something isn't working.

Older Cambodians putting younger streetkids in dangerous situations for whatever reason is something that should be examined as closely as the problem of foreigners or any adult preying on children. If children to have to go through the ordeal of sexual abuse allegations and court more than once it means the system is failing them particularly badly. At least one organization has finally brought in a qualified child psychologist to help victims of abuse get back on track and work through the damage done, hopefully before they turn to yaba, become prostitutes in a high risk low end market, or even abusers themselves. This is a positive step, but as yaba abuse increases and older boys such as this one realize there is money in abuse, it is a problem that is not going to go away.  

But not all scams are as depressing. One 20-year-old claiming to be a Buddhist monk invested in a handphone and says he has made a decision to give up on Nirvana this time around and take to cold calling anyone he meets instead in search of money to apply for a U.S. passport.

"Hello, I am a Buddhist monk from Battambang. You may remember me from here, or from my former posting in Phnom Penh," he begins. "I am seeking supporters to help me gather funds to emigrate, and I was hoping you might be able to help."

Obviously used to stunned silence, he continues his pitch. "I am actually looking for a mother or a sister. In fact, I'll be anything you want." I'd personally be happy with a Buddhist monk sans mobile phone and under a strict vow of silence by this point, but he will be anything except this, apparently. By the third call, this telephone begging is getting tedious. His call is handed over to another Cambodian who asks him what he wants. And then, finally, this time he hangs up and doesn't call back.

"Ah, this monk. He's from Battambang, isn't he? I know this man. Used to live in House 21 at a pagoda in Phnom Penh. Yeah, he called me last month asking for $300."

So the mystery monk with a yearning for the U.S. doesn't discriminate. He wants a father or a brother too, and they can be from anywhere. Just give him the cash. Perhaps slightly embarrassed to be caught out by someone else who is no stranger to his pitch, he gave up. Beware of people claiming to be monks calling for money. They are persistent little buggers who start calling very early in the morning, and you could be next.

"Have you ever seen bald men in hats talking to women on the river late at night? I bet they are monks. Monks these days. Some of them have no discipline," my friend continues.

He is not the only one partial to a rant about the state of Cambodian society that is mirrored in the alleged behavior of some monks. Waitresses at riverfront restaurants also lament the things they see. One woman (who fielded the motherless monk's first call) points out a gaggle of saffron robes furtively chatting to girls as they stride along the river, hardly breaking stride. Barely is she into her own little tirade than a boat looms into view, completely over-run by men in orange with no hair. "See!" she screeches. "Monks in supermarkets, monks on mobiles. Now they rent boats! They are coming in from across the water!"

Not all of these monkish mavericks are actually monks, it must be pointed out. Because monks in Cambodia are allowed to accept cash as well as food as alms, and monk's robes are easily acquired at any local market, local media is constantly filled with tales of people pretending to be monks to defraud good Buddhists of funds ­ a trick so prevalent that at least one secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religions has gone public to call for more funding to combat the problem.

And recently senior monks in Banteay Meanchey province in the far northwest also put a ban on monks going to casinos to ask for alms. Their robes clash with the garish atmosphere of the border casinos, and despite the promise of gamblers adopting a monk as a cause to earn merit for them at the blackjack table, the powers that be have realized that the look is not a good one. Monks, too, it seems, need management to keep to the middle path.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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