THE rash of violent crime which erupted in the capital in recent months has receded
as quickly as it appeared. But co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has warned against
complacency saying the problem could re-emerge at any time.
"We have arrested members of three gangs in Phnom Penh, two specialists at kidnapping
and a third mostly armed robbers. Police have arrested 138 robbers, 20 kidnappers
and have seized a large quantity of weapons, including hand grenades," the co-minister
said on June 11.
However, he said other gangs had "gone to ground" and would resume their
activities once the pressure on them was relaxed. "We have intelligence about
these gangs. We are after them and they know it. It's a very fragile situation."
Authorities have been confronted with a surge of killings, robberies and kidnappings
among the local population since late last year, and since April this year approximately
60 expatriate workers and foreign tourists have reported being robbed at gun point.
Western security officials say the figure is probably higher as many incidents go
"I think the situation is directly connected to the political climate in the
country - if the two main parties can work together we can enjoy a stable society.
But if [criminals] know we are not working well together, they will exploit the situation
because [law enforcement] authorities are busy with other things."
However, only two armed robberies of expatriates had been reported lately to security
The Ministry of Interior seems to have reacted quickly to the law and order crisis
- apparently as the result of a meeting late last month between diplomats, United
Nations representatives and Ministry officials including Sar Kheng.
A participant at that meeting said the co-minister appeared shocked when told of
the extent of crime against foreigners and that he recognized the potential to harm
Cambodia's economic development.
"He was very frank," the observer said. "He acknowledged the Ministry
of Interior had difficulties controlling the police and military and that some were
involved in criminal activities such as drug trafficking, illegal gambling and kidnappings.
He also admitted that his police forces were not trained to deal with the problem
within an open society which functioned under the rule of law."
Foreign security officials and diplomats had previously doubted whether the problem
would be addressed citing a lack of political will to do so. Some still question
the extent to which official action has had an impact. Said one: "We have seen
a modification of people's behavior. They are not going out at night. When they do,
they travel by car or in groups and some night spots have provided taxi services."
However, others say they're impressed with the speed of the Interior Ministry's response.
"We have seen road blocks established for weapons checks and the setting up
of mobile units who patrol quite aggressively," said another.
Kheng said he had taken a personal interest in the issue because of it's potential
to harm Cambodia's international reputation.
"I had many meetings with ministry generals, I was on to them every day"
he said through an interpreter. "They knew of my personal involvement with the
problem. They knew they had to deliver."
He said he was particularly disturbed by the criminal activities of teenage gangs
who called themselves Bong Thom (Big Brother) who had been robbing and even kidnapping
other young people for ransom.
Three members of a Bong Thom gang were arrested by police on June 3 over the theft
of a necklace. They later confessed to extorting money from students at local schools.
Speaking at a May 11 press conference, Kheng said Bong Thom members had joined certain
"foreigners" in organized crime including extortion, money laundering,
drug trafficking and counterfeiting.
An Interpol report examining organized crime in Cambodia and to be presented to an
international conference in Thailand latter this month, identified lax immigration
laws and corruption as the principle reason why Cambodia had been targeted by international
The report cites the example of three Chinese nationals who were charged by authorities
in that country for fraud involving a state enterprise. "These men have entered
Cambodia where they own a hotel and are operating a company with stolen money,"
the report says.
"Factories, land, hotels, companies and banks [in Cambodia] have been bought
or leased by people suspected of belonging to criminal syndicates," it continues.