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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Letter: Sticks and Stones

Letter: Sticks and Stones

Dear Editor,

A young man was beaten and stoned to death on 29 December, late in the afternoon,

by a mob of over 100 people. The police did not strike this man-they presided, kept

his murder orderly, cleared a ring around him, maintained a deliberate pace, called

off the assault each time he lost consciousness, finally verified his death, jumped

on their motorcycles, and left his body to the crowd. Mothers brought small children

by the hand to look, little boys imitated the haymaker punches and bashing of rocks

against his skull, and the actual rock-throwers replayed their moments of glory.

I lost sight of the body (my window overlooks the site of this execution, but the

crowd had closed in) for perhaps half an hour, until more police arrived to toss

the body onto an open cart and tow it away. All that remained were the chunks of

concrete and a dusty puddle of blood in the shape of a young man's body.

The man was an alleged thief - although allegation, reasonable doubt, the difference

between life and death, is one dimension of what has been lost in this shadow-system

of justice. I spent much of the following day discussing street justice with Cambodian

and expat colleagues and friends. It is emphatically not my field of expertise -

simply one more area of concern. Given that the Post has raised this issue with its

own photo spreads, I offer these observations and questions, and I hope to read the

responses of those who have more experience in the field.

My colleagues are mostly male, former teenaged soldiers who have their amputations

and memories for life. They spoke avidly of their fears of new places and strangers,

of the unpredictability and haste with which they might stand judged. Some were analytical,

pointing out that those in power have replaced principle with money. Murders or injuries

are settled for money, and poorer Cambodians have no access to wealth. This explosiveness,

this "someone is going to 'pay' for something right now" power is their

substitute settlement. Those who can afford conscience have shunned it, and it has

become unaffordable to the rest.

My colleagues (who are really helpful to each other) know better than to help a stranger

- it's too dangerous. In short, they have given street justice a good deal of thought:

they understand it, they condemn it and are saddened and fearful of their place within

it. Their powerlessness and their sudden life-taking power are equally burdensome.

Those who say they have seen, felt, and participated in enough violence for one lifetime,

believe they are in the minority. The tide is moving against them. A whole new generation

is acquiring a taste for it.

It seems to me that 'extra-judicial killings' is a misleading term, as it implies

the existence of a viable judicial system in the first place. Further, police who

are the most visible agents of any justice system are actors in this street system

- 'extra-judicial' themselves.

In practice, the street is the system most relevant to residents of Phnom Penh. This

is the system they read about, hear about, observe, understand, and fear. And I don't

hesitate to call this a system - people know their roles, and they certainly understand

that someone is going to pay for something today. So the street is the system, and

the judiciary are simply an 'extra-street' adjunct.

There are at least two things missing from this system of street justice. One, of

course, is justice. The other is humanity, and most of the assailants I saw were

young men, young enough to be living out their resentments, their learned behaviour

patterns for a long, long time - unless the crowd turns on them tomorrow. Or, unless

something better comes along. Reconstruction of a viable justice system is a long,

imperfect task. By the time some faith has been earned, street justice may have become

an ingrained source of satisfaction for justice-starved Cambodians. This feels like

a race against time for yet another generation.

What can be offered to them now? And what can be done by foreign residents? I was

neither saint nor martyr enough to have seriously considered walking into my street

and discussing this with a crowd bent on murder (my Cambodian colleagues congratulated

me for this uncharacteristic restraint). But I, we, live here to be something more

than witnesses to murder. The eventual solution (or lack of same) will be Cambodian.

Temporarily, though, thousands of foreigners are part of this society - a part with

disproportionate influence, control of resources, agenda-setters if you will. I know

that we condemn, but how might we act to oppose the street system? I fear that inaction

will result in a familiar form of 'progress', wherein problems are less solved than

supplanted by more urgent ones.

Marilyn Garson, Phnom Penh

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