The Government recently decided to create the Peoples Protection Movement - a
civilian militia to combat street thefts and robberies. Bou Saroeun and Peter
Sainsbury look at the movement and the larger issue of widespread mob violence
and summary executions in Cambodia.
KANDAL STUNG in Kandal province about 30 kilometers from Phnom Penh has embraced
the Government's initiative to fight crime - the creation of the Peoples Protection
The district has four teams of villagers mobilized to patrol their area at night.
Gongs or clappers have been fabricated and installed in every house to awake the
rest of the village if they find trouble.
The idea of a civilian militia is not new according to Chum Sarouen the deputy governor
of Kandal Stung district.
He said that during the Sangkum Reastyr Niyum regime it was the Kong Chivapol Nary
Clahan (Brave Women Militia); in Lon Nol times, Kong Svaytran (Militia); Democratic
Kampuchea, Kong Chlob (security guard); but after that they returned to Kong Senachun
Tolomtoleay (Militia) and then following the last election it was Kong Chivapol (Militia).
He said previous militia had worked well, particularly the Brave Women Militia. But
this latest incarnation will be dominated by men, he said, because since Cambodia
embraced the free market women have gone to work in garment factories, leaving the
He said the PPM patrols would not carry guns; instead they could arm themselves with
sticks, knives or hoes - if they find armed thieves they must notify the police
who carry guns and leave it to them.
Sarouen sees the move as an important way to involve the community in fighting crime.
"Whatever we do, if we have no participation from the people we will have no
success," he said. "I believe that when the PPM becomes strong the rascals
will be finished."
But while the PPM is being painted as a deterrent, or in extreme circumstances an
apprehension force, there are already indications that members are happy to take
on the role of judge and executioner as well.
One of the villagers who attended the meeting setting up the groups in the area said
a district representative told them not to arrest the thief because the district
had nowhere to put them and nothing to feed them; instead: "Just kill them."
And it is a sentiment that has found a receptive audience.
"I support killing the thieves and robbers and I think the people will support
it too," said one villager angrily. "I hate thieves and robbers because
they steal things from us or kill our people."
Many villagers cite the lack of effective law enforcement as the reason they want
to kill offenders.
A group of five men in one village in the district were unanimous in their mistrust
of the police and the courts.
When asked what they would do if they caught a thief they all said they would kill
him. When asked why, they said that if the offenders were arrested they simply bribed
the police to release them, then returned to commit further crimes.
One of the men gave a recent example of a man in the village who was a known rapist
and thief. They had him arrested but he was soon back in the village doing the same
thing. They decided then not to waste time with the police or the courts if he was
But Sarouen denied there was a policy at district level to summarily execute suspected
He said it happened because Khmer people were often short-tempered and frustrated,
but it was not like that at an official level.
"We are the government staff; we understand about human rights and the law but
the villagers, they don't know," he said. "And with their anger at the
theft of their property they can kill before the authorities arrive."
However mob rage is not confined to the rural areas of Cambodia. Last year one in
13 people detained by police were killed either at the hands of an angry mob or shot
trying to escape.
Nor is death only dispensed by the poor or ignorant. Two months ago two alleged motorbike
robbers were beaten to death by a mob of students living in a central Phnom Penh
pagoda, Wat Botum.
Then just last week a man was beaten almost to death by a group at the Fine Arts
School, behind Phnom Penh's National Museum in the middle of the tourist district,
after he tried to steal a motorbike and then pulled a gun on his pursuers.
Several westerners who tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the lynch-mob's sustained
attack saw the police arrive, in force, then after a cursory examination of the man
allow the mob to continue.
Chhay Yeheang, Dean of Philosophy at Phnom Penh University, attributes such behavior
to a number of reasons. He said primarily Khmers are not a happy people, something
he believes is due to long-term suffering, at times at the hands of other countries,
but at other times due to internal fighting.
"Issarak killed Khmer and Pol Pot killed Khmer and this is the picture in the
Khmer mind," he said. (Issarak was the 20th-century independence movement.)
"All these actions come back to Khmers - revenge and retribution."
He also blames the prevalence of graphic and violent photographs in the media for
a creating a distortion in peoples' minds.
He said this was not a recent phenomenon.
"In 1979 the Vietnamese ordered the publication of a book with pictures of the
Khmer Rouge killing people and this has stuck in the mind of the people."
But ultimately it is the lack of a trustworthy and competent police force and judiciary,
and the example of impunity by those in high positions, that are mainly responsible
for the killings.
"At the moment the killings in the village or the pagoda are caused by the lack
of law enforcement - the people do not have a spirit of peace," he said.
"The net of law has not covered the personal power [of high ranking individuals]."
The president of the human rights group Adhoc, Thun Saray, agreed that the lack of
effective law enforcement was the main reason for the phenomenon and said low salaries
mean police and court officials look to other ways of making money.
"The problem is money," he said. "Honest but poor - you get no
respect. Money, no matter where from, equals respect."
But he said he did not believe the problems with law enforcement were entirely due
to corruption: in many cases where there was a will by the police to prosecute an
offender the case fell over because of poor preparation of the file, something he
attributed to a lack of training.
This led to frustration for the police involved, who could not understand why the
offender was released.
"The police say 'We send them to court but the prosecutor releases them, we
might as well release them ourselves,'" he said. "Then the criminals take
revenge on the police [for arresting them]."
He said it would take some fundamental changes in attitude to correct the situation.
"We need to combat this kind of mentality and spirit. It is too aggressive,"
he said. "We must spread the culture of non-violence."