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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Last days for thieves' den

Last days for thieves' den


From a distance it looks like any other Phnom Penh street market, with throngs of

buyers walking the narrow lanes lined with stalls.

"Thieves Market", on Street 198, Phnom Penh, is slated to close in three months as the City has decided to end its days as a bargain-hunter's haunt.

But what distinguishes this market from others is that many of the goods on sale

are second-hand and that buyers are encouraged not to enquire too closely about where

they were sourced.

This is Phnom Penh's "thieves market", a string of stalls on Street 198

that Municipal Governor Chea Sophara has ordered closed in three months as part of

his ongoing city beautification program.

But vendors and buyers alike protest the city's decision, saying that it has more

to do with the market's reputation as a mine of ill-gotten goods than city planning.

The market's association in the public mind with stolen goods is, they say, a modern

urban myth that is as inaccurate as it is unfair.

"We are disappointed when people call this market a thieves market," says

clothing vendor Horng Sauphan. "But we cannot react to them because this is

our job."

The history of the "thieves market" dates back to the early 1980s when

it was located along Street 111.

The market became notorious as a source of stolen goods for sale, from still-wet

clothes from laundry lines to electrical equipment. And although the market relocated

to Street 198 in 1994 and the majority of good on sale are, Sauphan says, bought

legitimately from pawnshops and garment factories, the market's name and reputation

has stuck.

But unlike their namesakes, the market vendors refuse to melt away into the night

and have vented their opposition to what they say is an assault on their livelihood

on the doorstep of Hun Sen's Phnom Penh residence as well as during a March 27 meeting

with municipal officials.

Hurry up and wait? Hun Sen on April 25 pledges "justice" for KR victims.

While the city backed off on their announced intention to immediately close down

the market, vendors remain unhappy that they must pack up their stalls and relocate

without compensation by the end of June.

"We have no choice. If we do not agree to the three months delay, they will

knock down our store and our goods will be destroyed or looted," said market

vendors spokesman Horng Sauphan. "We are small ants and the elephant can step

on us any time, so we have to agree."

Sauphan, like many of the vendors, is convinced that the closure of the market is

due to its reputation as a haven for thieves.

But Tev Kim Piseth, Deputy Chief of Cabinet of Phnom Penh Municipality, who signed

the agreement delaying the market's closure, said that the closure was part of a

city-wide plan to eliminate all street markets in an effort to improve traffic flow

and beautify the city.

The city's intentions are lamented by more than those who derive their income from

it.

Soth Oun, 20, rummaging through a pile of second-hand shoes, told the Post that the

market was a boon for poorer city residents who wanted "...modern styles for

low prices".

"It is a cheap market...I have no money to buy nice shoes from modern shops

but I can buy here," Oun said. "Even though these are second-hand, it still

looks as good as what the rich kids have."

Oun's views were echoed by shoe vendor Ea Chanda, who said the cost of her goods

were cheaper and of higher quality than at other markets. Garment workers, soldiers

and policemen where among here most reliable customers, she added.

A clothing vendor who asked not to be named said that she frequently sold clothes

that had been discarded by popular Cambodian singers and karaoke video stars.

But in spite of the brush with luxury that occasional purchases at the "thieves

market" provide, vendors are unanimous that the income they derive from their

market sales are minimal.

According to Sauphan, an average day leaves her with earnings of only 5000-10,000

riels.

"From what we sell, we can only just survive, " said fellow vendor Khim

Sarom. "If we are closed down, my family will face a food shortage problem."

 

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