By the time a new police chief arrived, crime had run rampant in Sihanoukville for more than a year. Three months in, Post Weekend went to see what, if anything, has changed
Sihanoukville has always had its darker side, but earlier this year, it seemed like things were getting out of hand.
Amid a spiralling outbreak of beatings, stabbings, thefts and shootings – much of it linked to the “Russian mafia” – the blame was laid at the feet of the then provincial police chief, Seang Kosal.
“What does the police chief [Kosal] do?” lambasted Interior Minister Sar Kheng, “He sleeps in the province and does not open his eyes to see [what is going on] in Koh Rong, [where] foreigners are robbed and shot.”
In April, Kosal was transferred to the Ministry of Interior and replaced by former deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chuon Narin, a cop with a strong record of tackling tough cases in the capital.
So three months down the track, how are things going?
On the surface it’s difficult to see that much has changed.
Tourists walking a few blocks down Serendipity Road or along the notorious Occheateaul Beach during day or night are still peppered with the parrot-calls of drug hawkers.
“Weed? Cocaine? Massage? Ice?” They remain as much part of the scene as the coconut sellers, travel agencies and knockoff sunglasses stands.
And since the new police chief came to town, serious crimes have included the drugging and rape of an Australian tourist by a Cambodian guesthouse worker and teenage boy, and the rape of a Japanese tourist by two Cambodian construction labourers on Koh Rong.
In both cases, the alleged aggressors were swiftly jailed.
However, Michael Spencer, 54, the honorary consul for the British Embassy who has lived in the city for 12 years, said Narin had made an impact.
“It’s early days for him but he seems to have stamped his authority.
Progress is being made, I’m sure of that,” he said, sitting behind a desk within his wife’s travel agency office on Serendipity Road.
However, he added that, because statistics on crime from the police were unreliable, “[i]t’s all a matter of perception.”
Douglas McColl, 47, vice president of the Sihanoukville Tourism Association and an eight-year resident of the city, also gave Narin a glowing reference.
“I think it’s better here in a number of ways,” he said.
“The chief of police when he first arrived said that one of his key priorities was to deal with the mafia situation, and since that we’ve seen the deportation of [Sergei] Polonsky along with a number of other Russians in his posse,” he said, referring to the rivalry between the controversial Russian tycoon and local businessman Nikolai Doroshenko that made headlines for two years.
The resulting violence, especially after it had escalated to gunfights, had residents increasingly worried about their safety. But people were no longer so fearful, said the Scotsman.
“Possibly more importantly is that the message has been sent that [crime] is not acceptable,” he said.
“Whereas people were perhaps thinking it was a free-for-all – it’s certainly not the case.
"He’s certainly come down with an ‘I’m the new sheriff in town’ attitude and he’s making it stick.”
Maggie Eno, coordinator for M’Lop Tapang, a nonprofit that has worked with street children in Sihanoukville since 2003, said it was clear that Narin was putting a great effort into addressing crime.
“For example, there have been more arrests of individuals selling drugs,” she said, adding that petty crime still remained “a constant problem”.
“For child sex abuse cases, there was a recent arrest under his leadership [a 59-year-old Mexican national accused of raping a teenaged girl] which was dealt with, at least at the police level, very fast and now is awaiting trial,” she said.
“The police acted very quickly, which again is positive.”
But not everyone has noticed so much of a difference.
A foreign guesthouse owner who spoke on the condition of anonymity was less enthusiastic.
“Crime-wise, I’m sorry to say but they’re not doing anything about it. I don’t see any police anywhere,” he said.
“The only police [officer] I see is the one that stops you to get one or two dollars because you don’t have a driving licence.”
The local businessman added that the police chief’s focus on the so-called mafia problem obscured more pressing criminal problems, including rampant drug peddling, theft against tourists and underage prostitution.
“There was no Russian mafia in Sihanoukville,” he griped. “If there was any Russian mafia it was the rejects of the real boys.
"Russian mafia don’t say they’re Russian mafia. Polonsky got deported because he stuck too many fingers up the wrong people’s asses. And pure and simple, he had no visa for two years.
"Why should it be different for him?”
Meanwhile, Rany Lee, 28, an attendant at a lonely-looking “Tourist Information” stand at the end of Serendipity Road, a spot notorious for theft and drug-peddling, wasn’t even aware there was a new police chief.
She said that she still “never” saw police on the road.
“I think if we have more police here, it’s better for tourists, but some of them don’t work. They just sit around and then go,” she said. “After someone loses their bag, it’s gone, never found.
"They go to police [but] they say ‘no, we don’t know.’ Some police can’t speak English. They don’t understand the customer’s needs. They don’t know. It’s a problem.”
Speaking to Post Weekend, police chief Narin himself said he believed the high-level violence among Sihanoukville’s expatriate communities had been minimised.
“I think the situation here is normal,” he said. “It’s not that serious because we cracked nearly all the major cases. We arrested Polonsky and we’ve started to implement changes.”
Those changes included strengthening policing skills, reviewing unsolved cases, public outreach campaigns, increased anti-narcotic efforts, the deportation of “illegal immigrants” and the deployment of 24-hour patrols, although he did not elaborate where.
When asked about how he felt about the fruits of his efforts, he was diplomatic.
“I don’t know whether [the crime situation] is better or not. I’ll let the public evaluate that.
"I only know that most people here, both foreigners and local people, are much happier than before.”
Additional reporting by Monkolransey Mao.