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Garde Indigène (Indigenous Guard) – Cambodia’s earliest Western-style police force – on manoeuvres near Stung Treng in 1903. Albert Tajasque (courtesy Marine Pommereau)

A history of violence

After documenting 150 years of homicide, researchers have found Cambodia’s current regime has reduced violence to historic lows. But will the peace last?

The National Archives building in Phnom Penh is a peaceful place. There are usually few people and it’s always library quiet. The checkerboard floor tiles and tall ceilings keep the air cool naturally.

It was in this tranquil atmosphere that criminology academics Brigitte and Thierry Bouhours, with their colleague Rod Broadhurst, spent many long hours poring over musty documents searching for death, murder and mayhem as they researched the history of crime and violence in Cambodia.

Going back 150 years, the trio tracked trends in the annual death tolls – excluding acts of war – and put them in the context of socio-political events for a book to be released later this year titled Violence and the Civilising Process in Cambodia. And, surprisingly perhaps, they have found that violence in Cambodia has fallen to historic lows.

The Bouhours, a married couple from France who moved in the early 1980s to Australia where they studied criminology, first met Broadhurst, an academic with the Australian National University, in 2006.

A year later, they came to Cambodia to conduct “victimisation studies” to gauge the levels of crime, following up on similar surveys in 2001-2.

They found there was a big drop not only in property crime but also violent crime, which was backed up by an analysis of figures provided by the police as well as reports in The Phnom Penh Post.

“We found less revenge killing, fewer and fewer robberies and assaults. Not only had political violence decreased, but all types of violence across the board,” said Thierry Bouhours, who now lives with Brigitte Bouhours in Kep.

“But when we looked at all the literature on violence in Cambodia, it was a bit like the Khmer Rouge came out of the blue. Cambodia was all peaceful – you know the Cambodian smile and all that – then all of sudden, this crazy violence.

“This didn’t make sense, so then we had the idea of getting data from before the Khmer Rouge.”

At the same time, they wanted to find out whether the trends followed the predictions of sociologists like Norbert Elias and Steven Pinker, who theorised that “processes of civilisation” – such as the monopolisation of force by the state, development of economic interdependency and sensitisation to violence – generally resulted in a decline in violence.

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After the 1998 election, the government embarked on an extensive gun collection and confiscation program. Afp

The trio of criminologists found a trove of documents at the National Archives and at the Archives d’Outre Mer (overseas territories archive) in France, including the reports of French governors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, court warrants for arrests and more which allowed them to make educated guesses on the number of homicides committed.

“When people say that Khmer Rouge destroyed all the records, it’s not true,” said Thierry Bouhours. “Most of the colonial archives are intact. They destroyed the documents from the period of Sihanouk and Lon Nol and whatever what was at the ministry. But the colonial archive, they just left it.

"Some of it disappeared because the pigs were there. But most of it is intact. It was not wilfully destroyed. Plus, there is more in France, in Paris and Aix en Provence, where the French archive from all its previous colonies is kept.”

The book is written chronologically, starting with the French arriving to a country being eaten away on both sides by the Thais and Vietnamese and wracked by internal division.

By the turn of the 20th century, the colonialists had started implementing a centralised system – from the governor down to the village chief – with a formal police force, system of courts and administrative system.

“At that time economically, it’s going better, not for everyone, but overall ... and we find, which matches with Elias, that violence decreases thanks to the monopolisation of violence by the state.”

It wasn’t out of a humanistic impulse that the French were developing the country – they were mainly interested in collecting tax.

“They really sucked the place dry. They also built roads, but that was mainly to transport the rubber and make tax collection easier and to fight banditry.”

Banditry was still a big issue at the time.

“The bandits would take 150 head of cattle at a time,” said Bouhours. “They were big groups, with 100 people. This was not only bad for the image of the French, who were supposed to be protectors, but also, of course, the big bandits, by stealing from businesses, were preventing them from paying taxes … and often directly by attacking the tax collectors.”

The Great Depression in the 1930s caused a spike in violence as the budget for police was drastically reduced.

Then World War II – which saw the Japanese briefly occupy Cambodia but allow the French to nominally continue managing the country – signalled the beginning of the end for French control of the Kingdom. Political violence started to heat up as the fight for independence grew stronger.

“The Japanese let the French remain there, but they lost a lot of their credibility. How could they protect Cambodia if they couldn’t even protect themselves? So from that moment the independence movement built up,” Bouhours said.

Following independence, however, it seems like the violence eased off.

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The National Archives in Phnom Penh hold a wealth of documents from the colonial era. Charlotte Pert

“We don’t have much hard data. We mainly have secondary reports, what people say it was like. The little data seems to confirm there was less violence up to again the mid ’60s when there’s the war.

Then we go up, up, up, up from the mid-’60s to the Khmer Rouge. With the Lon Nol coup, the American bombing. All the things that we call the perfect storm.”

Bouhours said he and his colleagues lay at least some of the blame for the Khmer Rouge at the feet of the French who, while imposing the institutions of modernity on Cambodia, failed to invest in the people themselves through democratic reforms and education – providing few tools to resist the violent impulses that resulted in the catastrophe of Democratic Kampuchea.

“It’s one of our arguments that the French not only did not develop but they also repressed, prevented this civilising process in terms of education, political awareness and critical analyses within civil society,” he said.

Because of the scale of the “mega crime” during the era of Democratic Kampuchea, it was impossible to differentiate the number of deaths due to homicide and those due to state violence, starvation and other causes.

Brigitte Bouhours said even horrific death tolls such as these did not destroy the “civilising process” theories.

“According to Elias and other theorists, the process of modernisation and civilisation is not a linear process but one subject to spurts and counterspurts, which can engender violence.

“Elias did account for this and talked of ‘decivilising moments’ in the general process, such as WWII genocide,” she said.

“These moments lead to spurts of mass violence but do not cancel the whole long-term process of decline in violence.”

Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there was apparently a relative lull in violence – at least of the “ordinary” kind.

“If you see the chart, the Khmer Rouge were finished in ’79. After that, violence decreased.

We don’t have specific statistics, but while there were still a lot of guerrillas, the Vietnamese were still here and there was still a lot of fighting … but our interviews indicate that there was not much ordinary crime, probably because there wasn’t much to steal.

“The main violence was during robbery of gold, and those who did that were killed straight away by the police.”

The researchers blame a spike in homicides in 1993 on political instability around the UNTAC-sponsored elections combined with an accompanying influx of cash.

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The Cambodian People’s Party have reduced crime rates by maintaining a ‘monopoly on violence’. Pha Lina

However, apart from another spike around the bloody 1997 factional fighting that saw Norodom Ranariddh and his Funcinpec royalist political party eliminated as rivals, which was soon followed by the neutering of the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas, the numbers of homicides have steadily declined since then.

“Hun Sen has pacified Cambodia because he was well-organised and ruthless,” said Thierry Bouhours.

“This is the paradox of the formation of the state. It’s a process we see over and over again everywhere. It’s not because he’s Hun Sen or the CPP. It’s just the process.”

However, he warned that without reform, the decline in violence may not last.

“OK, violence is going down now, but what’s going to happen if there’s no political change and if people are still not able to make a good living?

If people in the countryside keep seeing all these people in big four-wheel-drives staying in nice houses while a lot of them grow their rice and can’t afford to send their children to high school? How long will the government be able to keep the status quo?”

Brigitte Bouhours added: “If reforms that benefit all citizens, particularly the poorest, are not enacted, there is a risk of social unrest that can lead to violence, riots and so on.

The unrest in turn could result in strong repression by the government and the army, leading to more social unrest and violence, like in Syria.

We hypothesise that in Cambodia it is less likely to happen because the government and the ruling elite have too much to lose, particularly from tourism and foreign investment.”

Thierry Bouhours said peaceful reform was now in the regime’s best interests.

“This government is now overtaken by this process of civilisation, the interdependency. If there’s a coup, then commerce is going to drop, tourists will stop coming and some who would possibly try to keep power by force might find they’re not supported by their own who benefit from this business.

“Elias saw the civilising process as a constraint. Interdependency is a restraint on violence. And so the psyche in the population now more leans towards finding a peaceful solution.”

Violence and the Civilising Process in Cambodia is due to be published in October by Cambridge University Press.

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