Cars are hot property around Phnom P enh these days. Forty-four UNTAC vehicles were
stolen just in June. In the first week of July the average was three to four each
day. UNTAC's Informationand Education component lost four cars in one week. Human
Rights Component lost three in 24 hours recently. One of them was a van carrying
three members of the International Jurists Commission, who were forced out of the
car at gunpoint around the corner from the Ministry of Justice.
Each theft incident seems more brazen than the last. One car was taken from its parking
spot next to the Security office inside SNC headquarters. Another was stolen from
outside the Gecko bar, its owners watching dumbfounded from their table across the
street as a man climbed in, saying he was the driver, and drove away.
"This all makes me sick," said one UNTAC administrator who recently spent
four days filling out reports for stolen vehicles. "We write reports, Security
does an investigation, maybe they even find the driver with copied keys, and then
- nothing. The car is gone, the guy is let go, and nothing happens," she said
shaking her head in disgust.
"In one case we had witnesses, we had proof; we went to his house and found
some nice new stuff there, but we couldn't do anything except suspend him. The investigation
is not finished, but I think nothing will happen to this guy."
One UNTAC staff member was at home eating his lunch last week, his car parked not
30 meters away in front of his house, when he heard his car door being opened. He
ran outside only to see the thief driving away, and chased him on foot as the car
headed past Military Police headquarters.
"I ran inside and told them, 'Hurry, my car's been stolen and it's right down
the street, you can still catch him,' but nobody moved. They sat there and looked
at me and five minutes went by," said the frustrated staffer. "Of course,
by the time they got a car ready, and we went chasing around Phnom Penh at high speed,
the guy was long gone. And they even had a chance to catch him, it was that close."
Out of a total pool of 9,745 vehicles, 120 have been stolen as of press time, and
by the time this newspaper hits the stands the number will have climbed, if recent
trends continue apace.
The majority of the stolen vehicles are four-wheel-drives. The most popular target
is the Toyota Land Cruiser, 37 of which so far have been nabbed. At a cost of $17-18,000
each, that's nearly $650,000 just in Land Cruisers, let alone all the trucks, sedans
and other equipment that have disappeared.
Once stolen, few cars are ever recovered. UNTAC Military Police and Security investigate
each incident, but rarely to any avail. Chief of Security Guenthersberger said his
investigations have managed to recover three or four vehicles. "We have our
suspicions, we investigate, and go looking for the cars, and sometimes we find the."
He speculated that some cars are hidden in Phnom Penh, repainted and resold, but
many are shipped out. "It's really easy to get a car out of Phnom Penh, you
can just put it on a boat and ship it down the river."
When cars first started disappearing, there were reported incidents of drivers being
forced at gun point to give up their vehicles. Then there were reports of drivers
who would go out on official business with a car but never return. Orders then went
out at one UNTAC unit never to leave local drivers alone with vehicles. Cars still
disappeared. Apparently keys had been copied in advance and cars continued to vanish
from offices, homes, wherever they were parked. One office decided to let go all
its drivers, and return most of the vehicle pool to UNTAC's central administration
before any more were stolen.
As more and more cars disappear daily, UNTAC police appear helpless at stopping the
problem. "We can recommend small measures, like increasing controls at headquarters
and warning people about where they should or shouldn't park their cars," Guenthersberger
said. "Everybody can have a steering lock [a metal bar that immobilizes the
wheel]; these work quite well, but you have to use them. They are like seatbelts,
they are in the cars, but people have to use them or it does no good."
UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt, whose own car was stolen from SNC headquarters recently,
said that a "handful" of thefts were probably committed by UN-employed
drivers. Given how many thefts take place inside UNTAC compounds or while under guard,
however, most observers believe that the majority of thefts are "inside jobs."
Even if a particular driver is suspected, it turns out that many gave false addresses
when they were hired by UNTAC, so they can't be traced.
Falt said that UNTAC police and security cooperate with local authorities in dealing
with each incident. According to one official who asked not to be named, however,
one driver was caught with several copied keys, but no vehicles or other proof. "He
was suspended immediately, of course," the official said, "but I understand
that he will continue to get his salary until the end of his contract, as the investigation
is not yet finished.
"This is what makes me sick, that we can't do anything. We have witnesses but
no proof. We are not professional investigators, there is no legal system to deal
with this problem here. The investigations continue, but nothing will happen. The
U.N. protects its people, sometimes too much. This is ridiculous, the way things
are disappearing here," said the official.
U.N. officials have speculated about an organized car theft ring involving "the
highest CPAF authorities." Stressing that UNTAC is "very concerned"
about this problem, Spokesman Falt said the matter has been taken up with Hun Sen.
Theft is not just limited to vehicles. One UNTAC office discovered a computer printer
'buried' in a pile of trash, apparently destined to be taken out and picked up later.
Another office experienced a rash of computer and other equipment thefts, resulting
in an office directive that all doors be locked when empty, even if only for a few
moments. "You have to be suspicious of everybody," said one administrator.
"I lock my door when I go to the toilet."