An expert says spiralling inflation could be behind a recent spike in street crime and urge people to be careful, but police say the number of reported bag snatches has decreased
FOR two years Cham Sopheany, 28, has been afraid to travel the streets of Phnom Penh. One evening two years ago while she was driving home from a wedding, the US$500 platinum necklace she had been wearing was snatched off her neck by a gang of kids who had been following her on two motorbikes.
"Since the incident, whenever I see young men driving in [groups] or driving fast, I feel that they will attack me," she said.
The lingering fear was not irrational: Last month Cham Sopheany again became the victim of a drive-by bag snatching. She was sitting behind her sister on a motorbike when three motorbikes approached them and one of the men grabbed her handbag. This time, she was pulled her off the bike, suffering bruising on her head and seriously injuring her leg, which still troubles her today. Her leg is not the only painful aftermath of the robbery. "I am scared of carrying a bag while I am driving a motorbike or even when I walk," she said, adding that she now uses a plastic bag to carry her belongings instead.
"Even though the authorities say it is safe everywhere, I still feel it is unsafe for me. I think other people feel the same," she said.
Cham Sopheany's story is far from unique, as street crime, such as armed robberies and driveby bag snatchings, are on the riseÂ in Phnom Penh according to Chris Chipp, country manager of UK-based G4S Security Services, which provides security solutions to large international companies. "There has been an increase [in street crime] over the last six months or so," he said.
The handful of incidents a month that make it to Chris Chipp's desk are just the tip of the iceberg, as hardly any of the victims report bag snatching to the authorities.
"It is very hard to gauge how bad bag snatching has gotten because ... most people won't report the crime," he said.
Chipp says that crime rates in Cambodia are increasing "because people are feeling the pinch economically".Â He added that robberies in the street are also on the rise.
"The moto attacks are quite easy because a lot of women will sling bags over their shoulder and so it is right [in front of the robbers]," Chipp said.
There has been an increase [in street crime] over the last six months or so.
"They will grab that bag and they will yank you off the back of the moto as well."
Touch Naruth, Phnom Penh Municipal police chief, said the number of reported bag snatchings in the capital was declining. "Before, it happened every day, but now we only get one complaint in two or three days," he said.
Traffic accident or attempted robbery?
Last November a French woman, Aurelia Lacroix, 28, was killed on Mao Tse Tung BoulevardÂ after she was dragged off a moto taxi and into the path of an oncoming minivan by two handbag snatchers on a motorbike, an eyewitness told the Post after the incident.
Touch Naruth said last week that no arrests had been made in connection with the incident. The moto taxi and the van fled the scene and no witnesses could identify either vehicle.
This is the only known fatality due to bag snatchings, but it is likely many more are injured as a result of being pulled off their moto. It is, however, impossible to tell how many people are hurt because no records of the incidents are kept, police say.
Heng Taykry, secretary of state at theÂ Health Ministry and director of Calmette Hospital, said he did not know how many people sought medical treatment for injuries sustained during bag-snatching incidents. "There are not a lot," he said, adding that such cases are usually registered as traffic accidents.
As in the cases of Cham Sopheany and Aurelia Lacroix, the perpetrators of the robberies are rarely apprehended.
Mok Khemarith, Phsar Depot III commune police chief, said Cham Sopheary's case is under investigation. "There are not enough clues," he said, adding that police are stationed at various intersections to watch for any illegal activity.
Like many other women, Neang Thida, 43, did not file a report after she had her bag snatched containing $600 in May. "I did not report it to the police because it is just a waste of time and it's hard for police to find the suspects," she said.
Profile of the average bag snatcher
According to Chris Chipp, country manager of G4S Security Services, the bag snatchers are typically young Cambodian males between the ages of 17-23. Usually there are two or three of them on one moto. Some-times they work in pairs and ride two motos, each with a couple of men on them. Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naruth says, "The perpetrators are usually seen wearing student uniforms and driving brand-new motorbikes." As a result, said Chipp, the task of finding the perpetrators is like â€looking for a needle in a haystackâ€. Women travelling on motos should take precautions and tuck their handbags between themselves and their driver. Do not sling handbags over your shoulder as, if they are stolen, you risk being pulled off the bike.