A young man in police custody, arrested on suspicion of being a bong thom-bong toich and forced by police to pose with a weapon for this photograph, supplied to the Post by a Khmer-language newspaper.
The prevailing crime trend in Kandal province this year resembles the stuff of low-budget
Hong Kong gangster movies: youth gangs, some clad only in underwear, some wielding
samurai swords, have been targeted by an elite military unit known as the Flying
In May, a group of at least five young men - armed with an AK-47 and going mostly
au naturel - made a string of daring home burglaries in Kien Svay district, making
off with untold jewelry and cash. Kandal's underwear bandits are the most bizarre
manifestation of the broader problem of bong thom-bong toich - "big brother-little
Throughout 2006, Kandal province, like many outlying provinces, has been terrorized
by groups of youths armed with samurai swords, rocks, machetes, automatic weapons
and small arms, police told the Post.
But thanks to the concerted efforts of Cambodia's law enforcement agencies, these
gangs are no longer able to rampage across the province uncontrolled - or unclothed.
"It was my force that cracked that particularly strange case of gang crime,"
said Oun Sophat, Military Police Commander in Kien Svay district, Kandal province
of the underwear bandits. "Gangs have become a much bigger problem since 1994
- when Chinese gang movies started being imported into Cambodia."
A scan of the Khmer-language newspapers reveals how pervasive the phenomenon is.
On many days photographs of half-naked, sulking young men and their blood-stained
victims punctuate stories detailing their alleged crimes: primarily thefts, assaults,
and violent disruptions of well-attended parties.
"Whenever there was a wedding dance, rival gangs from different villages would
come to the party to fight," said Kim Chanbopha, 34, Korki village, Kien Svay
district. "They used knives to attack each other."
Three months ago, as part of Hun Sen's de facto declaration of war on youth gangs,
the Flying Tigers - the Ministry of Interior's elite rapid-response police unit -
were sent to Kandal to help local police tackle the criminal behavior of the bong
"Before, if any normal villager even glanced at the face of a gang member they
would be viciously attacked," said Vanatha, 50, of Kien Svay district in Kandal,
who would only be identified by her first name for fear of reprisals from the gangs.
"The Tigers have prevented the bong thom acting with absolute impunity during
the day, but we are all still scared at night."
Established in 1996 to curb the tide of violent crime which had engulfed Phnom Penh,
the Flying Tigers are heavily armed and specialize in emergency responses to kidnappings,
armed robberies and vehicle hijackings. Among the most visible of Cambodia's police
units, the Tigers have a high profile on the capital's streets. On motorcycles, usually
carrying two pillion riders armed with AK-47s and with the word "POLICE"
emblazoned across their backs, they are well equipped to take on the bong thom-bong
'Troublesome' young men
"In Khmer we call them bong thom-bong toich but because we can't translate this
word into English we call them gangs," said Huot Veng Chan, community safety
technical assistant for the Cambodian Criminal Justice Assistance Project (CCJAP).
"We do not mean 'gang' in the Western sense which implies links to organized
crime - the phrase comes from Chinese gang movies and is used to describe the troublesome
young men in a village."
Chinese movies, drugs and alcohol are cited by many in Cambodia - from the upper
echelons of the police to the villagers on the receiving end of youth gang violence
- as the root causes of such juvenile delinquency.
"The gangs commit crimes because of drugs," said Vantha. "Why do young
people fight and steal? They are addicted to drugs: they need money to buy more drugs,
the drugs make them lose respect for others, for the law, for the village."
But youth crime has to be viewed within the context of Cambodia's breakdown of micro-
and macro-level social structures, said Professor Leakhena Nou, a sociologist at
California State University in Long Beach, who is studying Khmer youth.
"Many of the negative behavioral manifestations - youth gangs, gang rape - of
Cambodia's young people are directly and indirectly related to Cambodia's poor infrastructure
at all micro (family relations) and macro (social corruption, inadequate educational
and legal systems) levels," she told the Post by email.
According to Nou, the breakdown of social structures has complex, but concrete, ramifications
and violence can become both a protest and a survival technique. When legitimate
channels for protest are closed - for example, if young people are excluded from
meaningful political participation - then violence can become an "outlet for
their discontent with the way things are run in Cambodia," said Nou.
According to Nou, distrust of the police and judicial systems, and an awareness of
Cambodia's pervasive, institutionalized corruption can warp the development of values
and accepted behavioral norms within the country's enormous younger generation.
"They do not trust the police and judicial systems (or the government at large)
and believe that the only way one can excel in Khmer society is to engage in unethical
practices often linked to the abuse of power by those in positions of authority,"
Nou said. "As they see corrupt social actors getting away with things and gaining
status in the process, why consider doing things according to the right process and
with morality? Why not take the short path to success instead of struggling?"
Nou's research helps to illustrate the fact that youth crime is a structural problem;
it is systemic breakdowns which encourage negative behavior to develop. Consequently,
although crackdowns, such as that by the Flying Tigers, are able to curb the worst
of the gangs' activities - preventing, for example, daylight robberies, public drug
taking, and violent confrontations between rival gangs - they cannot provide a full
Cambodia's education system is "the key to breaking the cycle" of youth
crime, said Nou.
Scared to go to school
"Even the schools are ruled by the gangsters - the teachers are scared of them,"
said Vanatha. Moreover, the presence of the youth gangs in the schoolyard is scaring
other children away from an education.
"Some parents don't send their children to school if it is far from home because
they are afraid that they will be intimidated or hurt by gangs," reads a feasibility
study conducted for the Cambodian youth service program Youth Star. "This is
especially true of parents of young girls."
A lack of education greatly limits the already slim chances of finding employment
in Cambodia. A 2005 Youth Star report claims that Cambodia's higher education system
has 8,000 new graduates each year, and only one in nine is likely to find employment.
"The young people in the village do not have jobs, they do not have anything
to do," said Vanatha. "So they join gangs and take drugs and get drunk
But the Cambodian police are increasingly aware of the need to address the underlying
causes of juvenile delinquency and prevent, rather than just punish, criminal behavior
said Stephen Moore, Community Safety Adviser at the CCJAP.
"Police are always concerned by the idea of interfering with youth gangs - thinking
they have to crack down hard on them or lock them up and re-educate them," he
said. "But the crime prevention approach that we are trying to inculcate is
that there are other things that they can do. Things that lead to social development."
Through the CCJAP, provincial police forces are being encouraged to design action
plans tailored to local crime prevention and community safety needs; funding is provided
through a central trust fund.
The schemes primarily focus on engaging socially marginalized young people who could
otherwise gravitate towards the life of a bong thom.
"We are focusing on the young people who never go to school, who have never
received any guidance from their parents, and who use drugs, drink wine," said
"To tackle an issue such as youth crime you need to come to terms with some
of the issues that may be causing it," said Moore. "Look a bit deeper,
go out and do some consultations, talk to some of the people who are affected by
it, and some of the people that are involved in it. Speak to young people, speak
to their parents. Then you can come up with something that local people think will
In Kandal, the crime prevention and community safety action plan consists of 98 projects
which range from the predictable - motorcycle repair courses and football coaching
- to more innovative schemes such as mushroom growing and ice cream salesmanship.
An estimated 2,156 beneficiaries are reached; the 2006 Who's Who puts Kandal's population
Experts maintain that crime prevention is a long-term process that should ultimately
provide disaffected young people with alternatives to crime. And although they say
it is proving effective, it was the presence of the Flying Tigers, not the careful
and considered efforts of local police, which villagers cited as the key in restoring
some sense of safety to Kandal.
Incidents of rural gang violence in 2006 as reported by local English and Khmer
Compiled by Eva Shum
Gangs take their toll
January 5: Battambang province, Tumnop Teuk village -
A group of gangsters beat a man at a festival celebrated at a primary school.
January 8: Kampong Speu province, Samraong Tong district -
A group of more than 10 gangsters attack a man with samurai-style swords and machetes.
January 13: Kampong Speu province, Prambei Mum commune -
Two alleged gang members attack a man with swords at a party, leaving him with serious
January 14: Kampong Speu province, Yi Ang district -
Four gang members injure a man with chains and machetes at a dance.
January 18: Takeo province, Koh Andet district -
A customs officer and a military police officer are assaulted by three of about 20
people who surround them after they confiscate smuggled gasoline.
January 19: Phnom Penh, Srah Chak commune -
Four robbers shoot a Thai man after stealing his mobile phone.
February 10: Phnom Penh municipality, Daun Penh district -
Seven young men armed with swords and knives attack and rob two Turkish men.
February 11: Sihanoukville province, Thmey village -
A policeman dies after having his throat cut by a group of gangsters on while returning
home from work.
February 17: Prey Veng province, Snai Puol village -
A man is attacked with a cleaver while trying to stop an argument between two groups
of gangsters at a wedding party.
February 18: Kandal province, Kambol village -
A man is beaten to death and two others are injured during an attack by six people
who blocked their path and attacked them with sticks.
February 17: Kandal province, Ang Snoul district, Kombol commune -
A group of gangsters beat three young men; one dies and the others are seriously
March 1: Kandal province, Chhouk Thom village -
A police chief is shot and robbed by six young men armed with AK-47s and handguns
while he is patrolling.
March 28: Prey Veng province, Sre Ren village -
A group of gangsters shoot a man dead with a rifle at his house and escape.
April 10: Kampong Speu province, Boeng Village -
Two men are stabbed by three gangsters during a local dance. One dies, and the other
April 15: Kampong Cham province, Tuol Sambou commune -
Two groups of gang members battle each other at a New Year's Party over beer money.
May 6: Kandal province, Kok Til village -
A woman is killed by a group of gangsters as she tries to stop them arguing with