"SPOILT rich kids" and rogue, off-duty policemen are being blamed for the
spate of armed robberies against Westerners in Phnom Penh.
Until recently, Westerners had been largely immune from the level of violent crime
experienced by Khmers, but at least 40 expat workers and tourists have been robbed
at gun point in the city during the past four weeks.
In the week to May 11, twelve westerners had been held up.
The worst affected area appears to be Street 51 in Boeng Keng Kang district, or "NGO-ville"
as it is often referred to, and the bar and restaurant "strip" along the
Tonle Sap River.
The attacks have led many foreigners to speculate the robberies are the result of
an organized campaign of intimidation linked to the political tension in Phnom Penh.
However, one Western official whose job includes security assessment in the capital,
who wished to remain anonymous, said such a campaign was "unlikely."
"These attacks are not racially or politically motivated - they are not specific
anti-foreigner incidents and professional thieves would not bother with just a couple
of hundred dollars they can get from foreigners.
"If they were [political or racial] the victims would be insulted and humiliated
and they are not. They are just told to 'hand over the money'."
The source said men in uniforms were involved in some of the reported incidents,
but most involved young, well dressed people with a reasonable command of English.
The robbers were often riding expensive motor cycles.
"These are 'high society' thieves... they are well connected, they realize Westerners
are rarely armed and will not resist. And they know they will not get caught.
"Khmer people are not really hostile toward white foreigners... it's just a
question of changing expectations. They see a lot of money around and watch videos
which promote expensive lifestyles. They just want a slice of it...
"But," he said, "they are often very nervous - they don't display
the cool calmness of professionals, and that can be very dangerous."
However, one incident that is now infamous around the expat community and that has
already been reported in one English-speaking newspaper, implicates Khmer police
in the crimes.
A Westerner who went into one police station to report a robbery identified the thief
in the same room - standing on the other side of the desk in police uniform.
This has been confirmed as true by numerous well-informed sources. Fearing retribution,
parties involved preferred not to discuss the incident.
If the "rich kids" are considered unprofessional, sources say that proof
exists that at least other assailants are organized, and work in teams.
For instance, at least three expats have been robbed by assailants who afterward
gave their victims the empty wallets of expats who had been robbed before.
The Western official interviewed by the Post said the problem would remain a feature
of life in Phnom Penh and was likely to get worse.
"The police do not have the resources to properly investigate this type of crime
and crack down on the perpetrators... it's not a question of incompetence, but how
much can we expect of police officers who are paid just $20 a month?"
Police routinely charge foreigners $1 to report robberies. One foreigner was asked
if she wanted to help contribute money toward the painting of the police offices,
when she came in to report a robbery.
One Western woman - robbed twice in the same week, outside her front gate - was asked
by police if she would be willing to walk down a street alone at night, followed
some distance behind by a plain clothes cop. She declined, fearing what might happen
to her in a potential cross-fire.
"It's not fair," said one Voluntary Service Overseas worker. "They're
only able to rob the ones who have to walk or take motos. They don't touch the NGOs
rich enough to drive cars." This worker, who lost $20, told her gun-weilding
robber: "Oh no, you're joking. I'm only a volunteer..."
Meanwhile, the traditional free-wheeling Phnom Penh night-life enjoyed by many expats
has undergone possibly a permanent change. It is evident that foreigners who previously
were untroubled in travelling between watering holes on moto-taxis are now being
far more cautious.
Some now won't leave home at night; others are going to and from bars in "convoys"
of spontaneously arranged motos with trusted drivers. One expat with a car said recently
she didn't know she had so many friends.
Another has hired a Khmer guard armed with an M16 rifle at $10 a night to accompany
Security officer for the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, Barnaby Jones, said:
"The best advice to avoid it [armed robbery] is not to go out.
However, for those readers wishing to avoid "cabin fever", advice widely
circulated among UN agencies includes:
- Whenever possible, avoid walking alone at night.
- Carry your bag in a secure manner to prevent "snatch and runs"
- Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
- Do not travel with your passport or a large amount of money. Conceal and divide
your money, do not carry it all in your wallet.
- Do not carry your address in your bag as it also likely to contain your house
- Try to use a moto driver you trust. Ask him to come back at an appointed time.
- Try to travel in the company of friends.
- Explain clearly, exactly where you want to go. If the driver continues in the
wrong direction, demand he stop.
- Don't argue about the price - fix it to begin with.