Forced from their provincial homelands by poverty and drought, many
of the beggars and homeless living in Phnom Penh's streets are now being picked up
in sweeps and illegally detained in centers like 'Kapsrov'. Chea Sotheacheath
and Martin Wikfalk report.
This center was closed for the election, but arrests of Phnom Penh's homeless have now resumed.
Tuesday, Aug 4, 9:40 pm. A typical sultry Phnom Penh night: hundreds of people are
drinking and eating in the restaurants around Phsar Thmei, children play in the streets
and beggars move from table to table asking for a few hundred riel.
"Go, go, go!... Police. Police! GO!" A dozen or more people, many of them
bare-chested children carrying little bags of food scraps, dash madly through the
street. They collide with diners sitting on chairs and crash into parked motorbikes.
Diners leap up to see what's going on. Some find it funny. Faces crane out from apartments
high overhead: What's happening?
"Oh not again," sighs a drinks seller. "They've come to arrest these
people again. They have often arrested them before," she says, looking at the
melee. "They arrest these people and they escape... they come back here again."
Three men in civilian clothes jog into the street. They shout "Stop!" at
those running but it doesn't work. Two have bulky, squawking ICOM radios under their
shirts. They can't catch the fleeing urchins and even the older beggars have had
too much of a head start.
Three women nearby, obviously frightened but not wanting to show themselves, hurry
off in short, rapid steps to hide behind stalls or disappear into darkened corridors.
For some reason one of them fearfully hangs around.
The three officials zero in on two men and an elderly woman sitting at a food table,
each of them dressed in tell-tale countryside kramas. Two of the officials stand
with hands on hips and watch for other suspects. The third begins interrogating the
"Where do you live, you? In Phnom Penh or the provinces?"
"Yes?" she says, lifting her spoon to her mouth and glancing at her two
"I asked what province are you from." Harder. Harsher. Pointing an accusatory
"I live in Phnom Penh."
"Where's your house?"
"Over there," she says, pointing north.
The noodle seller tries helping. "Oh, she's a bit deaf, she can't hear."
Around the corner, three malnourished and naked babies, noses running and eyes streaming,
have been left behind in the stampede. One almost falls off his folding bamboo cot.
Another sucks on a milk bottle next to a bag. Soiled clothing is left strewn around
This area 50 meters east of the the central market is where the street people sleep.
It is one of the areas most dangerous for them, where they're most vulnerable. After
a quiet election period, the authorities are again rounding up Phnom Penh's street
Many of them have experienced Kapsrov before, one of the Ministry of Social Welfare's
three shadowy detention centers 13km west from central Phnom Penh.
A pickup truck filled with stern, armed military policemen sits behind a larger Korean-made
truck already filled with 15 or more homeless people, mainly women, all of them dressed
in simple, colorful rural clothes. They are quiet and look very distressed - and
probably have good reason to be.
The trucks lurch off.
"I heard the engine and I recognized it was the Kapsrov truck," says Yin
Savun. "That's why I was the first to run away. I hate the Kapsrov truck."
The three babies are still alone in the street; heart-breakingly skinny and dull,
listless. A silent youth with no shirt props one of the kids back onto the middle
of his cot.
Soon, a woman hesitantly returns. She's familiar - the one who had earlier hid from
the round-up rather than flee. It's obvious now why. She begins to cradle her little
son, wrapping a krama around him and glancing about at those watching her.
"I'm so frightened," she says unprompted. "I just arrived here yesterday.
Oh, it's such a drought," she says of her Prey Veng homeland. "I will not
stay here any more. I'm going back tomorrow." This fearful situation in Phnom
Penh is intolerable - even more so than the poverty of home.
She may find it hard to believe that she's been luckier tonight than Yang Mol.
The 43-year-old Mol, who collects empty cans in Phnom Penh, lost her 6-year-old daughter
last month after having left her alone with her 4-year-old brother on a city street.
"I told my children: 'Stay here, you must not move.' My daughter said: 'Oh,
I have to stay here Mum.'" At lunch time Mol returned with food for her family
and her daughter was gone.
Neighbors told her that she had been "sent to the center".
Homeless people like these have a renewed worry in their lives since the passing of election day: the "Kapsrov truck".
Mol spent the last of her money on a fortune-teller who says she "saw"
Mol's daughter living somewhere near Psar Thmei. Mol hasn't been able to find her
there even though she now spends all her time looking.
The Post has been told that some women have been released from Kapsrov only after
being selected as "pretty" enough to be "interviewed", or to
"coin" soldiers at the camp.
The "interviews" and "coining" are euphemisms for sexual favors
in exchange for release. "Coining" involves rubbing a coin on the torso
in a traditional medicinal healing.
Yin Savun, 40, has been arrested twice and detained in one camp. She paid 60,000
riel for each release.
"If there were some beautiful girls among the [detainees] we could not sleep,"
she says. "[Camp guards] would go around with a flashlight to check from one
mosquito net to another and if they found a beautiful girl she would have a job to
"... 'Coining'," interrupts Khieu Noeun, another former detainee, finishing
Savun's sentence, "... or 'interviewing' the Sangkat [commune] official."
The crowd all laugh along with them.
Any girl the center's guards found pretty was called out from her mosquito net at
night and went to "coin" for them, Neoun says. It was always a different
Sometimes the girls would be put in a car and driven to Phnom Penh to be "interviewed",
she says, again to the crowd's amusement. "Some of the girls were sent back"
because they might not have been so beautiful, but others "we would see again
in the morning".
If detainees didn't have money, or couldn't escape through the flimsy-looking wooden
walls of Kapsrov center - or if the women weren't "beautiful" enough -
they would eventually be trucked back home to the provinces. "They are dumped
back home," Savun says.
Most come from Prey Veng and Svey Rieng - areas so drought-stricken and poor that
villagers have been meeting together for some months and selecting able-bodied locals
to go to the capital to try to make some money.
"[Kapsrov] is worse than a prison. Normally prisoners have a regular schedule
to their daily lives. They even have a dish to eat their rice. [At Kapsrov] we have
to eat rice and salt from our hands," says Noeun, 34, who was detained when
she was pregnant last year.
In May, San Chantra and his wife were arrested at night by armed men at Chbar Ampeou
Market where San Chantra works as a porter. The armed men fired in the air to scare
the people and those who where not quick enough to escape were arrested - more than
50 of them. Most of the people were beaten, some with guns, before they were loaded
on pickup trucks.
They were told that they were arrested because they were not residents of Phnom Penh,
but simply squatting on the road.
A 32-year-old woman was arrested by policemen and soldiers as she was sleeping near
Mohamontray Pagoda. They told her that they were "taking her away to educate
her". Instead they took her to a military headquarters. On the way a police
officer hit her with a gun. She was later taken to Kapsrov center where she says
she was continuously beaten with guns by the guards at night.
The living conditions at Kapsrov were very poor. The food was insufficient. Water
was taken from a well and was drunk without having first been boiled.
"Poverty chased me from my homeland to Phnom Penh and Phnom Penh police chased
me away... Oh life is difficult," says Sarng Koun, who quit his high school
in Prey Veng last month.
Escapees say that authorities have now begun erecting fences around the center and
that it is being patrolled by four to five guards in military uniforms with AK-47s
Those who lived there had to relieve themselves through holes in the floor. "Oh,
it was so bad... like prison. Worse," says one inmate. "And the smell..."
One human rights worker says most of the people complained about illnesses and some
showed signs of vitamin deficiency while others were seriously malnourished.
Chantra left Kapsrov after three days. Relatives paid for his release. "In the
detention center if we have 30,000 to 40,000 riel to pay the guards we are able to
get out, if not we have to stay there indefinitely."
Some people were questioned by guards using electric cattle prods, Chantra says,
adding that people who tried and failed to escape were tortured.
In an interview with the Post, Minister of Social Welfare Suy Sem said that the center
had been used to collect people from the streets for the last two years.
"We collect them from the streets, after that we provide some food, clothes,
skills and capital."
However, Sem denied allegations of detention by force and release through bribery.
According to him, social workers undertake counselling with the homeless, who are
only taken to the centers if they consent.
Sem had not heard about payments of bribes to be released. "Street people have
nothing in hand," he said, adding that the people came and stayed at the center
Sem denied that street people were rounded up by armed authorities at night. "Social
workers don't work at night," he said.
Rights workers said Kapsrov and its two sister centers closed down before the election
Suy Sem said that the center had been closed because it will be rebuilt as a "project
When the Post visited the center last week it had been closed. A woman running a
small shop close to the center said it was "closed more than a month ago. They
do not arrest any more because it is close to the election."
"They just opened the doors and the people walked away," she said. However,
she had heard that they would start arresting people again after the election.
The Post confirmed Kapsrov was closed, but on Aug 4 a Post reporter witnessed a renewal
of the official armed round-ups of homeless near Phsar Thmei. The people had to flee
again from the "Kapsrov truck".
A human rights worker who visited the center before it closed said that the arrest
and detention of street people were illegal acts.
"There is no suspicion [of them] having committed any crime," the rights
"I have spoken to about 20 people who have been taken to the center and no one
had mentioned about any voluntary element. Quite the contrary, people living on the
streets and markets were arrested at night by armed law enforcement groups."
If the center was voluntary, "why are people locked up and why have armed guards?"
He had not heard anything about skills training. "People instead complain about
being locked up for most of the day... There is no equipment that can be used for
If the guards didn't get money from relatives who could somehow find where their
family members had been taken, the detainees would have to stay at the center for
several weeks before boarding forced transport to their home provinces.