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Royal mugging raises fears

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Officials have expressed concern that coverage of attempted mugging of Princess Eugenie’s friend could affect tourism; others say crimes on rise

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SOVANN PHILONG

Exposed wallets can make tourists likely to fall prey to muggers in Phnom Penh.

THE reported mugging of Princess Eugenie of York's friend thrust Cambodia into the international spotlight this week - not exactly the kind of publicity the government wants for the so-called Kingdom of Wonder, particularly as officials work to repair a tourism sector battered by the economic crisis.

The high-profile attack on Britain's sixth-in-line to the throne reignited a longstanding debate: Is Phnom Penh seeing a rise in aggravated theft, as anecdotal evidence suggests, or is crime in the capital down, as police statistics indicate?

The government tried to paint Eugenie's incident as anomalous even as it vowed to improve policing at popular tourist destinations.

"We are deeply sorry for what happened to Princess Eugenie and her friends and hope very much that the group will soon be able to put the incident, if there was any ... behind them and remember Cambodia for its many attractions," wrote Hor Nambora, Cambodia's ambassador to Britain, in a press release issued Wednesday.

The release, from the Cambodian embassy in London, sought to "reassure that Cambodian police and security services have always stepped up patrols in areas most popular with foreigners in Phnom Penh" as well as near "the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex" and in Sihanoukville.

We are deeply sorry for what

happened to princess eugenie.

A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Tourism, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he and his colleagues "were upset when we heard about the case", adding that they had approached officials at the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and elsewhere to ask them "to prevent this from happening in the future".

But Kong Sophearak, director of statistics at the ministry, downplayed reports of concern among officials there, saying, "This will not have much impact on the tourism sector."

Elizabeth Evans, deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Phnom Penh, said the incident would not affect travel advisories distributed to British nationals.

She said via email that the embassy - which tracks crimes reported by British citizens and others for whom the embassy has consular responsibility - did not have "substantive evidence of a significant increase that would justify a change to the travel advice" it produces.

Bag-snatching increase?

Yet others who track crime in Phnom Penh said the incident involving Princess Eugenie could be part of a broader, underreported increase in such attacks.

"We've certainly had an uptick in crime in the past couple of weeks," said John Johnson, spokesman for the US embassy, which tracks crimes committed against US nationals and other foreigners.

Others said the increase had been more prolonged. Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, said he had observed an increase in bag-snatching throughout the first few months of the year, adding that he believed joblessness and drug use were at the root of the problem. Theary Seng, executive director of the Centre for Social Development, also said the trend had been building for months, adding that she believed it would continue "due to the global financial crisis".

Chris Chipp, an independent security consultant based in the capital, also cited economic turmoil as a contributor to what he described as an ongoing increase.  

For his part, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth disputed claims that there had been a recent increase in bag-snatching.

"We are actually reducing the number of bag-snatching cases a lot," he said, adding that officers were "continuing to strengthen" the police presence in "targeted areas", notably at busy intersections.

But Chipp, who does not work with government law enforcement agencies, said most bag-snatchings go unreported because victims do not expect any tangible benefits to result from bringing their cases to the police.

Expatriates are reluctant to report crimes, he said, "because they know in the back of their minds that nothing is going to be done". Cambodians often elect not to report them, he said, "because they're going to have to pay the cops off" to get them to take any action.

Chipp, former country manager of the UK-based G4S Security Services, said he believed Phnom Penh's streets had become less safe during his two years here, a trend he attributed largely to the limited police presence, particularly at night.

"You take a look at night after 5 o'clock - tell me where there's a cop," he said. "You need to call them. And nine out of 10 times after you call them, you need to pay them."

He said the typical bag-snatching involves "young Cambodian guys on a moto" who either target people riding in tuk-tuks or "cruise up and down a street looking for someone walking alone in a darker area".

This description rings true for Jessica Crowe, 24, an Australian tourist who was the victim of a bag-snatching on Saturday night. Walking with two friends near the intersection of Street 178 and Street 19, she said, she "felt something tugging" on her bag, which was slung over her shoulder.

The strap broke, she said, and the man who had been pulling on her bag - which contained an iPod, mobile phone and US$350 - then grabbed it and jumped on a motorbike driven by an accomplice. As they drove away, she said, the man pulled out a "dark gun-shaped object" and pointed it in their direction.

"I wasn't expecting it," Crowe said. "We were just walking between two bars that were quite close." She said the incident occurred on an "empty block" that was "not well-lit", adding, "There didn't seem to be much of a police presence out."

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