In the realm of law and order, 2012 seemed to be the year of brazen recklessness, when rank trumped justice and the big guy took it out on the little guy.
Alongside record-breaking drug busts, acid attacks, kidnappings and grisly murders, apparent abuses of power turned up on a disturbingly regular basis and dominated news headlines from the very beginning of the year.
In January, security guards in Kratie province’s Snuol district opened fire on villagers during a protest against the clearing of cassava fields.
A month later, then-Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith allegedly fired into a protest and injured three garment workers. Hardly a beat passed before Bun Sokha, former deputy chief of staff of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, was caught on tape in April beating a man with three others in a Koh Kong hotel.
Only two guards were charged in the Snuol shooting, while charges against Bandith and Sokha were mysteriously dropped.
“The context of Cambodia, with the powerful and well-connected enjoying impunity to abuse the rights of others, remained consistent, but the intensity of abuses certainly increased as issues of land seizures came to the fore,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.
“Similarly, shootings and beatings of ordinary persons by well-connected officials showed a disturbing increase.”
But few cases shook the nation’s collective conscience as much as a murder that took place in a jungle and reverberated well outside of Cambodia’s borders. In late April, while escorting journalists into Koh Kong province to examine the illegal logging trade, Cambodia’s crusading environmentalist Chut Wutty was gunned down under circumstances that have never been fully explained.
Or rather, they have been fully explained, but few understand or buy the explanation. The official version of events is that military police officer In Rattana shot Wutty after an argument. Rattana was then shot, or so the story goes, by Ran Boroth, a security guard employed at the time by logging firm Timbergreen.
As monitors of the case tried in vain to put the hard-to-assemble puzzle together and find out what happened, a troubling piece was introduced. Less than two weeks after the sentencing of Boroth, who was convicted to two years in October for the accidental killing of Rattana, a provincial court suspended his sentence. With time served, he walked free in November.
Plenty of gunplay occurred outside the boundaries of land and logging, though, as was shown by the virtually endless stream of accounts describing the Wild West behaviour of military officials and their apparent penchant for shooting aimlessly into the sky on the slightest pretext.
As recently as December 12, in perhaps the most ironic incident, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier and four others out carousing allegedly fired three shots into the air in sight of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Though the five were charged less than a week later with illegal weapons possession, the case was something of an outlier. Few members of the military have been held to account in similar incidents, despite the fact that Hun Sen spoke out against anarchic shooting sprees committed by the powerful and well-connected.
In September, he gave a speech calling for stricter measures against rogue military officers, warning that he didn’t want to see any more media stories about the government failing to act when the influential flouted the law.
The impact of Hun Sen’s words on military officials appeared negligible, however. As Robertson pointed out, there was “no appreciable action to hold them responsible and no apparent political commitment to change the dynamic that allows officials to abuse who they want whenever they want”.
One day after the shooting outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, an angry RCAF commander in Pursat province allegedly unloaded 10 bullets into the air because his name wasn’t on a list of Cambodian People’s Party supporters. His superiors said he would be “educated” about responsible firearms usage; that’s military code for a slap on the wrist.
Some received more than an education. The Anti-Corruption Unit, established in 2010, made its third and fourth arrests in 2012. The year-long fraud and corruption investigations into two Preah Vihear officials, deputy prosecutor Thol Kem Hong and provincial taxation office boss Chea Sophal, proved fruitful. Their cases are pending.
The first corrupt official arraigned under the body’s new powers was anti-drug czar Moek Dara, who was convicted in January on 32 counts of bribery and corruption and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, and a decision is expected by the end of this month.
Drugs seemed to show up everywhere in Cambodia this year, among users and sellers, distributors and traffickers, while analysts and officials issued warnings about the country turning into a drug production haven in Southeast Asia.
Police broke up methamphetamine labs, intercepted narcotics at Phnom Penh International Airport, and seized international shipments of precursor chemicals at the ports in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
“It is a little bit worse than last year,” said Meas Virith, deputy secretary general at the National Authority for Combating Drugs. “Not all of the chemicals are imported illegally. Some are made here … It is normal that criminals try to find a place to produce drugs. This is a new place.”
The wide reach of narcotics brought down local tycoon Tang Seng Hak in November, when anti-drug authorities raided his Phnom Penh home, where they said a meth-smoking salon was in effect. More than a dozen people were arrested and Seng Hak was charged with drug trafficking.
Crime, of course, wasn’t limited to officials or the well-connected. Over the past year, Cambodian authorities battled a dizzying array of attempted capers, misdeeds and all-out mayhem. There were – to name but a few incidents – online gambling networks, a high-profile pedophile who was finally kicked out of the country, acid attacks, grisly murders and horrific tragedies.
Cambodia’s reputation as a haven for sex tourists seeking illegal pleasures was slightly improved when government authorities booted out notorious Russian pedophile Alexander Trofimov in June.
Trofimov was an investor in a Sihanoukville resort who had been convicted of abusing 17 Cambodian girls between 2005 and 2007. He received a royal pardon last year but was re-arrested in the summer on deportation orders from the Ministry of Interior.
Victims of fatal and violent crime this year came from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. But while motives and details differed, the cases of wanton cruelty stood out.
Teuk Thmem villagers in Battambang province mourned the lives of three children, after a local man named Chem Vasna was charged with their murder in September. The bodies were found in a field after they were left there for four days. Police said Vasna confessed to raping and slitting the throat of the eight-year-old girl after luring her into the fields to help pick mushrooms. Afterwards, according to the investigation, he killed her fleeing nine- and 11-year-old friends.
In a highly publicised murder a month later, police in Phnom Penh found the body of 19-year-old Lim Srey Pich, who had recently won a competition to model for Spy Wine Cooler. Srey Pich was found strangled to death, and authorities later arrested a woman who police say confessed to inviting the teenager to her house via Facebook.
Nothing can compare with the loss of life, but the loss of appearance through painful disfigurement is close. Described by a human rights group as “one of the worst crimes that a person can commit”, acid attacks became so common in 2011 that the National Assembly passed a law upping penalties for attackers and limiting access.
Ziad Samman, project manager with the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, said that the law’s passage might account for the decrease in reported incidents in 2012 compared with the previous year.
Seven attacks occurred this year, according to the charity, compared to 17 in 2011.
“One could speculate that the development of the acid law has thus far acted as a deterrent for would be perpetrators,” he said in an email. “However, until the first legal cases that fall under the acid law go to trial, we will be unable to see just how serious the government is about the implementation of this important legislation.”
The lower number, however, is one of the few bright spots in a year crowded with disturbing violence.
No review of crime in 2012 would be complete without a passing nod to some of the year’s stranger-than-fiction vice. There was plenty to choose from, but the top slot goes to a man in his late 40s from Kampong Thom.
Tong Houn had developed quite the infamous reputation for himself in what locals and police say was a 10-year spree of suspected kidnappings, robberies and killings that spanned six Cambodian provinces.
He was said to have the strength of a giant and no fear of death, and he lived up to at least part of the myth when he was arrested after a brief shootout in late October.
“He threatened the police forces, saying: ‘Now you’ve arrested me, why don’t kill me?’” Brigadier General Phan Sopheng, the police chief Kampong Thom, told the Post after the arrest. He added that it took five to six police officers to restrain him.
The authorities sent him to the provincial prison in Kampong Thom, but they worried that, given his ability to evade police for so long, he might also find a way to slip out of the low-security facility.
Maybe the walls will hold him, or maybe they won’t. The man with superhuman strength may be in luck, though. As 2012 has shown, the big guy usually wins.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at email@example.com