Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Crime surge eases, but threat remains

Crime surge eases, but threat remains

Crime surge eases, but threat remains

THE rash of violent crime which erupted in the capital in recent months has receded

as quickly as it appeared. But co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has warned against

complacency saying the problem could re-emerge at any time.

"We have arrested members of three gangs in Phnom Penh, two specialists at kidnapping

and a third mostly armed robbers. Police have arrested 138 robbers, 20 kidnappers

and have seized a large quantity of weapons, including hand grenades," the co-minister

said on June 11.

However, he said other gangs had "gone to ground" and would resume their

activities once the pressure on them was relaxed. "We have intelligence about

these gangs. We are after them and they know it. It's a very fragile situation."

Authorities have been confronted with a surge of killings, robberies and kidnappings

among the local population since late last year, and since April this year approximately

60 expatriate workers and foreign tourists have reported being robbed at gun point.

Western security officials say the figure is probably higher as many incidents go

unreported.

"I think the situation is directly connected to the political climate in the

country - if the two main parties can work together we can enjoy a stable society.

But if [criminals] know we are not working well together, they will exploit the situation

because [law enforcement] authorities are busy with other things."

However, only two armed robberies of expatriates had been reported lately to security

officials.

The Ministry of Interior seems to have reacted quickly to the law and order crisis

- apparently as the result of a meeting late last month between diplomats, United

Nations representatives and Ministry officials including Sar Kheng.

A participant at that meeting said the co-minister appeared shocked when told of

the extent of crime against foreigners and that he recognized the potential to harm

Cambodia's economic development.

"He was very frank," the observer said. "He acknowledged the Ministry

of Interior had difficulties controlling the police and military and that some were

involved in criminal activities such as drug trafficking, illegal gambling and kidnappings.

He also admitted that his police forces were not trained to deal with the problem

within an open society which functioned under the rule of law."

Foreign security officials and diplomats had previously doubted whether the problem

would be addressed citing a lack of political will to do so. Some still question

the extent to which official action has had an impact. Said one: "We have seen

a modification of people's behavior. They are not going out at night. When they do,

they travel by car or in groups and some night spots have provided taxi services."

However, others say they're impressed with the speed of the Interior Ministry's response.

"We have seen road blocks established for weapons checks and the setting up

of mobile units who patrol quite aggressively," said another.

Kheng said he had taken a personal interest in the issue because of it's potential

to harm Cambodia's international reputation.

"I had many meetings with ministry generals, I was on to them every day"

he said through an interpreter. "They knew of my personal involvement with the

problem. They knew they had to deliver."

He said he was particularly disturbed by the criminal activities of teenage gangs

who called themselves Bong Thom (Big Brother) who had been robbing and even kidnapping

other young people for ransom.

Three members of a Bong Thom gang were arrested by police on June 3 over the theft

of a necklace. They later confessed to extorting money from students at local schools.

Speaking at a May 11 press conference, Kheng said Bong Thom members had joined certain

"foreigners" in organized crime including extortion, money laundering,

drug trafficking and counterfeiting.

An Interpol report examining organized crime in Cambodia and to be presented to an

international conference in Thailand latter this month, identified lax immigration

laws and corruption as the principle reason why Cambodia had been targeted by international

criminals.

The report cites the example of three Chinese nationals who were charged by authorities

in that country for fraud involving a state enterprise. "These men have entered

Cambodia where they own a hotel and are operating a company with stolen money,"

the report says.

"Factories, land, hotels, companies and banks [in Cambodia] have been bought

or leased by people suspected of belonging to criminal syndicates," it continues.

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