We started our study of crime and violence in Cambodia in 1998, and after 15 years of research have completed a manuscript titled Violence and the civilising process in Cambodia, which should be published at the end of the year.
The book documents and discusses the types, patterns and trends of crime and violence in Cambodia since the mid-19th century. Based on official police statistics, media reports and crime victims surveys, our findings show a dramatic and consistent decline in crime and violence in the contemporary period (1993-2012).
For example, the rate of homicide victims has fallen from 23.5 per 100,000 population in 1993 to 2.4 in 2012.
A recent US State Department advisory issued by the US mission in Cambodia painted a grim portrayal of the violent crime situation in Cambodia, which is in many respects quite contrary to our evidence of a progressive decline in violence.
It noted an upward trend in robberies and shootings between 2010 and 2012 and an increased menace of violent youth gangs, which our evidence confirms.
It associated this isolated spike with the poor performance and ineffectiveness of the police and the continuation of “vigilante justice”, and commented: “Corruption within the Cambodian National Police (CNP) and the judicial system and low police wages have contributed to criminal activity.
“The majority of the crimes committed are for financial gain and opportunistic. Youth gangs continue to operate unimpeded throughout Phnom Penh.… Violent crimes, especially armed robberies, continue to occur.
“A government effort to control access to firearms has had limited success. While military weapons are no longer sold openly in the city, they are still available to criminal elements” .
The advisory did not mention that robberies and shootings have consistently and dramatically declined in Cambodia since 1999 and that the modest 2012 spike occurred only in Phnom Penh. As for vigilante justice, the evidence we have gathered shows a significant decline between 1993 and 2008 when it had almost disappeared (our limited resources have precluded further investigation post-2009).
However, the last sentence in this advisory about “the limited success of the [Cambodian] government effort to control access to firearms” is puzzling, even if understandable given the atypical US gun ownership policies.
Puzzling, because in 2011 the also atypical US rate of homicide (compared to most developed countries) was 4.7 per 100,000 (UNODC Global Study on Homicide), that is, double the Cambodian rate of 2.2 per 100,000, and armed robberies and shootings were far more prevalent in the US.
For instance, the United Nations International Crime Victims Survey (UNICVS) showed a rate of 2.3 per cent for robbery victims in New York in 2003 compared to 1.5 per cent in the UNICVS that we conducted in Phnom Penh in 2005.
For the same years, the national US robbery victimisation rate was 0.6% compared to the combined rate of 0.7% for the three most populated provinces of Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Kandal, and Kampong Cham), which overestimates the correct Cambodia national rate.
In addition, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2003, 36.7 per cent of homicides in Cambodia were due to firearms (down from 58.4 per cent in 1998); by comparison that proportion for the US was 66.8 per cent and it has remained constant until 2012 (www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/ Homicide/ Homicides_by_firearms.xls).
In Cambodia, like almost everywhere else in the world, criminal elements manage to obtain guns illegally.
In the US, both criminal elements and ordinary citizen can purchase guns legally in shops. On evidence, the gun control effort has had more than a “limited success” in reducing violence in Cambodia.
Professor Roderic Broadhurst, Dr Thierry Bouhours and Brigitte Bouhours are criminologists at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. They have been conducting research on crime and violence in Cambodia and are in the process of publishing the results of this long- term project.