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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UNHCR Ultimatum on Thefts

UNHCR Ultimatum on Thefts

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees, one of the largest international aid organizations

in Cambodia, has threatened to suspend its operations unless the new government takes

action against a suspected car theft ring that is systematically stripping NGOs of

their vehicles.

"We are committed to the people of Cambodia ...[but] if our essential tools

of work are stolen and our staff's safety is threatened we would have no other option

but to re-orient or cease our activities," the U.N. agency said in statement

released on Sep. 17.

UNHCR, which along with its implementing agencies has more than 350 vehicles in Cambodia

has lost six cars to thieves in the last two weeks. Most of them were taken at gun-point

from aid workers as they were returning home from work.

Until recently, humanitarian organizations had been spared a wave of robberies which

cost UNTAC more than 170 vehicles, most of them taken during a two month period after

the elections.

"We are fed up. We are losing cars every night," said a UNHCR official

who declined to be named.

"We have tried everything, tried constantly to re-inforce security measures

but whatever we do they are always one step ahead. They are organized and professional.

I fear that this is increasing and soon there will be no one to prevent it,"

she said.

The highly organized nature of the car thefts and the recovery of two stolen UNTAC

Land Cruisers from two Cambodian generals has led many people to suspect high-level

military involvement in the crime epidemic.

This suspicion was further re-inforced by the systematic way the car thieves seemed

to have shifted their focus from UNTAC to NGO cars after the United Nations said

it would delete the stolen vehicles from a list of equipment that was to be left

behind when the peacekeepers pull out.

But then in the week from Aug. 13 to Aug. 20 UNTAC lost another 12 vehicles.

"It has been a really bad week, we lost five on Wednesday alone," said

UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt.

"The trend seemed to be UNTAC and then NGOs. We thought we had stopped the haemorrhaging

but now I don't know. It seems like everybody is being hit. I heard even the U.S.

mission lost a car," he said.

The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, an umbrella organization of NGOs met with

Foreign Minister Norodom Sirivudh on Sept. 15 to express their concerns over the

thefts and the increasingly violent nature of the crimes after its members lost 12

cars in the post-election period.

Sirivudh told the NGOs that there was little he could do until the legal government

takes power. He did promise, however, to organize a meeting between the Ministry

of Interior, Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Defence and the NGOs. Sirivudh

said he would also make a national television appeal to local staff of NGOs to be

security conscious.

NGO workers however firmly believe that it is not the drivers who are stealing the

cars but members of a well-connected racket.

Nick Hughes, spokesman for the CCC and a former policeman said the thefts had all

the markings of an organized ring.

"The modus operandi is very similar, you wait for the car to come to you and

take it. It is a very slick operation," he said.

Hughes cited the case of one NGO Land Cruiser which was recovered by Cambodian police

shortly before midnight some eight hours after it had been stolen. When the police

arrived at the garage the vehicle had already been taken to different stops throughout

the city where spare parts were removed and it had been stripped down ready to be

spray painted.

At the same time as Sirivudh was meeting with the CCC representatives, an NGO driver

waiting outside the Indoswiss courier agency in Phnom Penh was robbed of his car.

The incident was particularly alarming for NGO workers because it marked the first

time a driver was violently attacked. Previously most thefts had been at gun point

at the gates of workers residences.

"It was quite nasty. He was smacked across the face and hauled out of the car,"

said Hughes.

In addition to the practical problems caused by the loss of mobility and the sheer

cost of replacing a $30,000 4-wheel drive vehicle, NGOs also fear that the rising

level of robberies is going to make it harder to recruit and keep qualified local

staff.

"My guards are scared and running away. I have excellent staff but what can

you do when one of them gets threatened. The temptation is big, especially when they

are threatened by guns as well," said one administrator working with a U.N.

agency.

UNTAC has so far only been able to recover a handful of the stolen cars. Their efforts

were further hindered after a controversial UNTAC raid on a politician's house in

a bid to recover a Land Cruiser mistakenly believed to have been stolen. The politician,

Chheang Vun, locked the six-man UNTAC team in his compound and refused to let them

go until they signed a piece of paper saying they had acted unlawfully. In the wake

of the raid, the Cambodian press and in particular the former pro-SOC papers lashed

out at UNTAC for abusing the rights of Cambodians.

"UNTAC is disdainful towards and looks down on our nation," charged Koh

Santipheap. If Mr. Vun had not created a public scene, "UNTAC would increase

its violations," it said in an article that was typical of the local press reaction.

As a result of the botched raid, the Cambodian police have refused to work with UNTAC

investigators in cases involving senior military or government politicians, leading

many inside UNTAC to believe the whole debacle may in fact have been a set up.

"They knew the UNTAC team would arrive without papers and the way the tip-off

came and everything else fell into place has got a lot of people very suspicious.

Ghanabatt believes they know where a lot of the vehicles are being kept but without

police cooperation they can't move," said one well-placed UNTAC source.

The attacks on UNTAC have particularly upset workers at other U.N. bodies.

"If they don't want us here I think we should pull out. We are here for humanitarian

assistance, we came to give physical help not to dictate or interfere in government

affairs but to assist refugees, ...bring medical help. We give help we don't tell

them what to do," said one irate relief worker who declined to be named.

Ken Inoue, deputy director of the Phnom Penh provincial HQ, who lost an NGO-number-plated

car at gun point said the rash of vehicle thefts had soured the feelings many UNTAC

employees had about Cambodia as they prepared to leave.

"A lot of people are starting to blame the morality of the Cambodian people.

Maybe Prince Sihanouk should make an appeal to the people of Cambodia that they should

not steal property, they should not treat UNTAC in this way," he said.

Inoue added, however, that he did not think it was fair to blame the common Cambodians

for the car theft problem. "I don't think the person who stole my car is driving

it right now. He didn't need it for himself or his family."

Some NGO workers are also angry at UNTAC.

"I blame UNTAC because they did nothing but add each stolen car onto their list.

Cambodian are just laughing at UNTAC and it's too late. If they had stated at the

beginning they would not accept this, maybe it would have never gotten to this point,"

said the UNHCR official.

The Cambodian press has blamed UNTAC itself for the thefts. Raksemai Kampuchea in

an article titled "The Way to Catch Thieves" said "UNTAC should take

a look at its own employees.. I'm afraid there may be an inside conspirator,"

the article said.

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