It may be a far cry from the Wild West days of the 1990s, but whether hiring from among their own relatives or turning to professional firms specialising in personal security, Cambodia’s elite are as likely as ever to employ bodyguards
In a café in Phnom Penh earlier this year, a tourist encountered the wrong person on the wrong day. What began as a verbal exchange with another customer quickly escalated into a violent confrontation.
The tourist says that in a fit of rage, his adversary, an affluent local man, stormed over to his bodyguard who was standing nearby. The bodyguard pulled out a handgun, passed it to his “boss” and stood by as he dished out a pistol whipping.
The use of bodyguards is a curious phenomenon in Cambodia. From the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s entourage of North Korean military men in the early 1990s to the minder who tried to accompany an observer into the national exams last month, many bodyguards have been used in many ways since peace was brokered.
Last month it emerged that taekwondo champion Sorn Seavmey, who won Cambodia’s first-ever gold medal at this year’s Asian Games, had been recruited into the Ministry of Interior’s special Bodyguard Unit.
While such protection is a status symbol for some – a licence to act as they please – others see the bodyguard industry, made up of professionals and amateurs, as a product of a society in which safety cannot be taken for granted.
“Phnom Penh has more than its fair share of crime,” says John Muller, managing director of Phnom Penh-based Global Security Solutions. “A lot of conflict in the capital results from business conflicts. You also get jealousies, violence in the workplace, protests.”
Set that to a backdrop of impunity, poor law enforcement and poverty, Muller says, and “you really have to take your own security seriously”.
Across Phnom Penh, barbed wire is going up at a rapid rate and men in navy blue uniforms – some alert, some asleep – are recognisable figures outside businesses and apartment complexes. For many people, basic security is enough. But for those who create enemies or have much more to lose financially, the risks are greater, Muller says.
“To hire [a hitman] with a gun is not expensive, [but] I would say the biggest threat . . . in this country is the roads,” Muller says. “We get a lot of mysterious accidents.”
For Malis*, a businesswoman in Phnom Penh, being accompanied by a bodyguard with a concealed firearm has become part of life. “When your family has money, you need a bodyguard,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that Cambodia is not a safe place . . . but they can protect you.”
In Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, former RCAF soldier and military trainer Yin Sararoth has recently set up a private security company, Star World Security. Along with the usual services, Sararoth can source armed bodyguards straight from the Ministry of Interior.
“We can get them on demand,” Sararoth says. “We write a letter to the Ministry of Interior asking for bodyguards. It’s up to the client how many and how long. We charge based on that.
“Those bodyguards have much more experience [than normal guards] when it comes to personal protection.” And, unlike all other bodyguards, they are allowed to carry guns.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak and Touch Naroth, director of the Bodyguard Unit, were unavailable for comment.
For those without – or not wanting – government protection, personal security can be a different story.
“Cambodia is a self-governing country,” says Steven, an expatriate whose company CambodiaBodyguard.com provides bodyguards for visiting businessmen. “If something happens to you, who do you call? Who is going to come and help you?”
Steven’s business is geared towards people who want professionals who are calm and collected. “About 99 per cent of the job is psychological, preventing an incident happening,” he says.
Clients need to have the same mindset. “You don’t want someone who wants to come here and disrespect the culture.”
Muller’s business, GSS, also offers “executive protection”. But such protection costs money and requests are rare.
Those who can’t afford trained professionals are left to hire their friends and family, especially those with police or military experience, Muller says.
“They might just be a traffic policeman who carries a gun.”
Malis, for example, sourced her bodyguard through her family business, after learning he could be trusted – and that he had been trained at the Ministry of Interior’s Bodyguard Unit.
“Life is better with a bodyguard,” she says.
Personal security begins closer to home for pop singer Khem Marak Sreymon – a karaoke video star who has won more than his fair share of hearts. When he ventures out in public, he likes his two cousins to be with him.
“They protect me when people rush to welcome me,” he says. “They need to keep space around me. One of them is my driver.”
The other, he adds, acts as a personal assistant, a task that includes giving feedback about the singer’s performances.
The positions are paid, but they are by no means full-time, formal arrangements.
“Some people think the two are my bodyguards, but they have their own jobs as well. If they’re busy, I call my other cousins.”
In other industries, personal security can be equally ad hoc.
Known for corruption and worker unrest, the garment sector is Cambodia’s biggest exporter. Since the independent union movement gained traction in the 1990s, several union leaders have been slain carrying out their work.
When Ath Thorn, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), received death threats, he couldn’t afford to hire professional bodyguards. So he employed the services of a couple of fellow unionists to watch his back.
“When I have negotiations, usually one or two people follow,” he says. “It would be better to have personal bodyguards, but right now, I don’t have the money.”
Chuon Momthol, president of the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation, likes to know he is protected from any threats to his safety – even if he doesn’t know what those threats might be.
“I have two bodyguards. I have not had anyone threaten me, but you never know who out there hates you,” he says.
Momthol’s men are trained in martial arts, but they also act as personal assistants – one of them is a driver adept at fixing an engine.
While the Ministry of Interior provides protection for government officials, some of them prefer their own men, especially if they have business interests they want to protect.
“I do not hire people that I don’t know to be my personal bodyguards,” says tycoon and ruling party senator Mong Reththy, whose dealings include palm oil and livestock. “I have my two nephews follow me – they have been doing it for 18 years. One is my driver; the other is watching my back or looking after important documents.
“Are my two nephews bodyguards? I can’t say. They don’t carry guns.”
Given that professional bodyguards can be hired directly from the Ministry of Interior, it is perhaps no surprise they loom large in the public sector.
While one theory is that good bodyguards go unnoticed, a number working for high-ranking officials have made headlines for embezzlement, illegal weapons possession and other crimes.
In 1998, the bodyguards of the Kampong Speu provincial governor killed a 16-year-old boy who had climbed the walls of the official’s residence to steal chickens. The victim was allegedly tied up, tortured and shot at least a dozen times, according to rights groups. No charges were ever laid.
On the other side of politics, a bodyguard tasked with protecting the Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy says he has undergone party-funded martial arts training in Japan and China to help protect the opposition leader from any threats.
“We need to think of how to protect and defend our boss,” says the bodyguard, who requested anonymity. “When they sleep or when they’re happy at play, it is time for us to be ready.”
CNRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, however, says the opposition does not fund such training. The security force the party does have is mostly made of volunteers who accompany Rainsy and deputy president Kem Sokha. Sovann himself has a driver but no guard, he says.
“Before, there were a lot of assassinations,” he says. “Now they use the courts.”
Even so, during the tense deadlock that followed last year’s election, Sovann says, he and other lawmakers regularly noticed men in plain clothes watching them outside their houses. “They were there for months,” he says. “At both ends of the street. I confronted them, took photos of them and told them I knew they were watching me. We have to show them we are brave.”
Random beatings or other acts of aggression at beer gardens, clubs and restaurants, have helped shape a stereotype. It is one of a high-ranking official or tycoon – or their son – wandering gangster-like into establishments with bodyguards and throwing their weight around.
Though such cases may still be the exception, they concern some businesses.
“They are high-ranking people, they bring their bodyguards,” says Reaksmey*, an administrative officer at a Phnom Penh nightclub. “They think about their safety – or they try to show their power. Their [bodyguards] are sometimes people in the military.
They carry guns. We’re worried about that.”
Like other clubs in Phnom Penh, BLVD on Sothearos Boulevard strictly prohibits weapons. Security is tight and effective, owner Tyler Chan says, but the clientele sometimes includes rich or high-ranking people who bring with them a healthy entourage.
Their presence, however, does not necessarily denote trouble, he adds.
“We keep an eye on them,” Chan says, adding that this sometimes means giving them their own space – not as special treatment, but to avoid conflict with other customers. “There are no problems.”
For many people in Phnom Penh, that is the experience. Basic precautions keep them out of trouble with someone else’s bodyguard – and free from needing one themselves.
But if you do require some protection and you have the money, what should you look for in a bodyguard?
Muller, from GSS, says it’s an all-rounder, someone whose brains match his or her physical capabilities.
“You don’t have to be Bruce Lee or to have won the two-kilometre shot with the military,” he says. “One of the biggest skill sets is using your brain. If you have to pull a gun out, you’ve screwed up the whole thing.”
Keeping a low profile, determining risks for a client wherever they go – before they go there – is essential, he adds. Modern surveillance equipment, too, is becoming increasingly important.
“What I advocate is the use of technology and a few good men and women.”
Additional reporting by May Titthara
*Names changed to protect identity