The Constructive Cambodian: Real threat of teenage gangsters on society

The Constructive Cambodian: Real threat of teenage gangsters on society

The Constructive Cambodian
Lift's senior writers comment on key issues in the Kingdom
Tong Soprach on the real threat of teenage
gangsters on society

At the moment, gang violence is happening every day, despite the government’s efforts to put an end to it. Earlier this month a student was killed and others suffered serious injuries after fights against rival gangs in the centre of the capital, and samurai swords are still the weapon of choice for the gangs. The fighting is brutal and the injuries horrific, but the authorities do not seem to be able to stop it.

I think this violence is an important issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. In the past, Prime Minister Hun Sen often announced in speeches that if he could not solve Khmeng tom neung, or the gangs, he would leave office, and he also warned government officials at all levels not to protect member of gangs who may be family members as it would cost them their jobs.

Until now I have not seen any information about members of the government or officials or a gang member’s parents who had left or resigned his/her position due to being unable to intervene in the gang fights. In fact, young people are still fighting in the streets every day.

While the local authorities do intervene sometimes, they cannot stop them. The public’s opinion seems to be that the prime minister’s voice was effective for only a few months and after that the gang activity flared up again. In the past, people called the gangs Bong Thom and Steav. Recently the Ministry of Interior gave an official definition of youth gangs as Khmeng Tom Noeung or Youk Veak Chun Tomneug. The gangs were divided into three categories:

  1. They are a young gang with a group leader (Bong Thom).
  2. They do activities.
  3. They just follow a young gang.

A survey called Pauper and Princeling by Gender and Development for Cambodia found that youth gangs follow a Ksei or Knong, which refers to powerful people behind the gangsters who protect them if they have any problems related to violence. The survey discovered that more than half of the youth interviewed in Phnom Penh do not trust the police or the courts.  

While we recognise that the youth population is increasing every year, little seems to be done to help them. The authorities who run Phnom Penh have tried to create a few parks for children to play in, but there are few recreational places for young people.   

On the other hand, crimes are committed every day. I would like to share my experience from several years of working with and researching the behaviour of middle-class youth in Cambodian society. There are six main factors leading young people to become involved in criminal activities:

  • They are hopeless over their future, so it’s easy for them to fall prey to peer pressure.
  • In the last decade, many public places where young people recreated were sold. Now, there is limited space for youth, such as a few parks, the RUPP (Royal University of Phnom Penh) football field and inside the Olympic Stadium. Where do young people play?
  • Middle-class youth today are much more materialistic and exposed to beer-gardens, karaoke clubs, bars, nightclubs, discotheques, massage parlours, hotels, guesthouses and brothels, some of which  are located next to schools and universities. This leads to a troubled environment which young people come to enjoy rather than go to school. The question has to be asked: Who designs these environments? Young or old people?
  • The government and many donors overlook middle-class youth, who are also a high-risk group in society. There are only a few small youth centres run by NGOs through sexual and reproductive health and life-skills programmes. These centres are not enough for middle-class youths.
  • Old people prejudge young people negatively after seeing their attitudes, so youths do not allow their elders to give any advice.
  • Young people get no warmth from their parents, who are working hard and have much less time to talk with their children; especially some fathers who are enjoying themselves with new things such as another lover. They are not role models for their children. Sometimes parents use rough words and abuse their children and this leads to broken families.
  • Cambodia does not have a role model for young people, only bad behaviour like a senior government official who drove his car over the motorbike of a victim last month and walked away a free man.  

In order to address these issues, we, at the moment, would greatly appreciate if the government would close down all kinds of gambling establishments to help address the issue of social security.

However, I think the arrest and re-education of youthful offenders is not enough to secure Cambodian society.

However, there are seven main approaches to respond effectively to gang violence.

First, we must eliminate the culture of impunity that allows rich and powerful people to live outside the law. Not only arrest those gangs who were perpetrators of violence and crime as a show for the media and then several months later release them.

Second, Cambodian youth learn violent behaviour in part from international films and even locally produced comedies, not from the Khmer Rouge regime. They are too young.

Third, the prevalence of domestic violence also reinforces violent approaches to conflict resolution.

Fourth, the Kingdom does not have enough recreational outlets or government-sponsored programmes and activity centres to provide outlets for young people, particularly in the areas of athletics, art and music. And each school and university should have youth centers as well.

Fifth, drugs are easily accessible and contribute to a culture of violence, leading rival gangs to fight over territory and profits.

Sixth, role models are needed to show young people how to behave.

Lastly, there are many donor-funded organisations that focus broadly on education, health and youth leadership. But there are very few NGOs that work exclusively on community safety and youth-oriented violence, particularly among Cambodia’s middle- and upper-class youth.

I hope that a balanced approach as outlined above might help the government deal more effectively with gang-related violence and get closer to eliminating violence in Cambodian society. I believe that these reasons might help middle-class youth get far away from any crime in Cambodian society.

“Gangster” can mean alot of things in Cambodia. Do you think they should be considered a priority for police?


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