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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Westerners feeling the heat of the mean streets

Westerners feeling the heat of the mean streets

INTERNATIONAL observers say there has been a steady rise in the number of violent

acts against Westerners in Phnom Penh recently.

"In the last three months, there has been a definite increase in the number

of incidents reported to us," said Barnaby Jones, editor of the Cooperation

Council for Cambodia's (CCC) security bulletin, which is disseminated weekly to NGOs

around town.

"On average now, there has been, for example, a car or motorcycle theft - involving

the use or threatened use of firearms - occurring every other week."

NGO officials and diplomats contacted by the Post differed on the degree of risk

facing expatriates and tourists, but all agreed that Westerners should not take their

own security lightly.

"There's not been a large rise in acts of violence committed against Westerners

in Phnom Penh," said Les Hartley, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy.

"But there has definitely been an increase in incidents taking place late at

night."

"Although I don't think that Phnom Penh is a lot more dangerous than any other

Western city, my perception is that Westerners here have become a lot more tense,"

said CCC executive director Carol Garrison, a former Atlanta police officer. "Westerners

visiting or living in Phnom Penh should be more aware, they should exercise caution."

"Compared to some European cities, Phnom Penh is still a pretty safe city,"

added Jones. "But it is important not to take one's safety here for granted."

The consensus is that foreigners are vulnerable to thefts, muggings, and burglaries,

particularly after around 11:30 pm, when most of the city's population is asleep.

These can easily turn violent, as firearms are often involved.

Recent months have seen regular reports of expatriate houses being broken into in

the middle of the night, Westerners in Landcruisers or motorbikes being hijacked

at gunpoint, or being harassed or shot at by bandits or uniformed men.

"Just as there has been a steady increase in the number of Australians coming

to Cambodia," said an Australian Embassy official, "there has been a steady

rise in the relative number of disturbances involving Australian tourists and expats."

Embassy officials pointed to two incidents within the past month.

In the first, an Australian NGO worker was the victim of an attempted car theft when

he parked his vehicle outside a restaurant in central Phnom Penh. He escaped unhurt.

This was followed by a minor car accident - involving a female embassy staffer in

a car with diplomatic number plates - which led to shots being fired.

The woman was chased by the occupants of the other car for about 4km down Monivong

Boulevard, with shots fired several times at her. She escaped unhurt but the car

was struck by three bullets, according to embassy officials.

The embassy is understood to have laid a complaint with the Cambodian government.

Other incidents include anecdotal evidence that armed robberies of Westerners - including

at least four who lost their Honda Rebel motorbikes at gunpoint so far this year

- appear to be more common.

Security observers said crimes against foreigners were sporadic, with few distinct

patterns. The was no evidence that people of certain nationalities or sex were more

likely to be targeted. There had been no reported cases of rape or attempted rape.

According to two female expatriates recently burgled as they slept in their homes,

Western women are now becoming targets.

"To my knowledge, there has been an increase in incidents aimed at single Western

women," said Poppy Garner, who awoke at 4:00am one January morning to find a

Khmer man pointing a breadknife at her face and demanding money.

Garner, who - in a burst of adrenaline-fueled anger - scared off her assailant, said

the thought of rape never entered her mind, since Cambodian society was so sexually

closed.

If it had been in Australia, she said, she would have thought twice about confronting

the robber.

But to Satwant Kaur, a Canadian who has lived in Phnom Penh for more than a year,

the feeling of being sexually menaced was present even before her home was broken

into while she slept. "As a woman, I have never felt safe in Phnom Penh,"

she said. "I've lived in a rough section of Vancouver before, and have felt

safer there than I do here."

Observers said a combination of factors - poverty, alcohol, the number of available

guns and the behavior of some Westerners which can put them at risk - made for

volatile chemistry.

"There's always been a potential for problems in terms of burglaries, muggings,

and other attacks against Westerners at night," said Hartley. "If you are

round about town when everyone else is asleep, you are surely going to stand out."

"Law and order here is far from stable," added an Australian diplomat.

"Dangerous situations can arise out of nothing, as was the case when a small

fender-bender turned into a violent car chase."

Of crucial importance, the observers said, is the way Westerners behave around Cambodians.

"Westerners here do not have the heightened sense of security they should have,"

said the diplomat. "They need to understand the type of society to which they

are exposing themselves."

"We Westerners take more risks than the locals," said Kaur. "Western

women, in particular, are not aware of how Khmer men see them."

To Carol Garrison, who has been in and out of Cambodia since the beginning of UNTAC,

there has been a profound change in the way Khmer's approach Westerners. "Now,

they are no longer held in such awe or high esteem by Cambodians," she said.

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