It takes just 30 minutes to buy a handgun or assault rifle in Phnom Penh, where arms
of all kinds are readily available under the counter at a number of markets.
Today's customers are rarely criminals but residents eager to arm themselves against
an apparent increase in violent crime.
There may be no official night-time curfew, but the streets of Phnom Penh are deserted
as people lock away their motorbikes and other valued possessions, refusing to set
foot into the dark.
The local police, by their own admission, are unable to deal with the problem, beyond
posting extra armed patrols on the streets at night.
The result has been a sudden rush to buy weapons before proper controls take them
out of circulation, leaving the remainder in the hands of the criminals.
At one market, second-hand weapons, such as American M-16 assault rifles, can be
purchased for as little as U.S. $40, while AK-47's manufactured in a variety of former
Eastern bloc countries range in price from U.S. $35 to U.S. $50. Hand-guns cost between
U.S. $100 and U.S.$200.
"Most people seem to think that there are no gun laws in this country,"
said a senior-ranking officer with State of Cambodia (SOC) Internal Security, who
asked not to be named. "But the only people allowed to carry guns are those
in the armed forces and people with legitimate gun licenses."
It is impossible to estimate the number of weapons in circulation in Cambodia. As
more troops give up the fight, some weapons find their way onto the market place.
UNTAC warehouses, where the vast majority of surrendered weapons are stored, have
also suffered a number of break-ins.
For the past month, heavily-armed patrols from the capital's newly-formed Anti-Banditry
Unit (ABU) have been conducting stop-and-search operations throughout the night,
looking for unregistered arms. Others lie in hiding in known trouble spots, waiting
for the call to action.
The patrols, composed of both SOC civilian and military police, have had some effect
in reducing crime, but the situation is likely to change as the criminals alter their
tactics to meet the increased police presence.
In addition, some Khmer civilians say that while the patrols may have decreased incidents
of banditry, people are still reluctant to venture out at night, fearing extortion
by the police patrols.
"Now that the government soldiers have set up checkpoints, the people are no
longer afraid of robbers-they're afraid of the soldiers," said the owner of
a restaurant in Kien Sway on the outskirts of Phnom Penh."They'll stop and search
you and charge 1,500 riel and up for people to cross the Monivong bridge at night,
as early as 8 p.m."
On a recent night, the mobile patrol-accompanied by two Phnom Penh Post reporters-made
three arrests for weapons possession. In the first instance, the patrol found a motorbike
rider carrying a sawn-off AK-47.
Later, at a roadblock hastily assembled in the Boeng Kak red light district, police
stopped two young men carrying a small pistol. Within seconds, dozens of police hiding
near the roadblock had the two men surrounded and quickly bundled into the back of
the pick-up truck.
When we asked for a closer inspection of the gun, it turned out to be a pistol-shaped
cigarette lighter. "Is this illegal?" we asked.
"Not exactly," explained a senior ABU officer. "You need a licence
for a gun and you don't for a cigarette lighter. But you can still hold people up
with a lighter."
By far the most common crime currently is motorcycle theft, closely followed by armed
"It won't be long before UNTAC [personnel] become direct targets themselves,"
said one Khmer police captain. "Perhaps they will really start to sit up and
take notice then."
Relations between the SOC police and UNTAC can best be described as strained. According
to the SOC police captain, UNTAC has criticized his forces for shooting first and
asking questions later.
"But they also complain that the streets are dangerous at night," he said.
"They can't have it both ways. Last night we had a hand-grenade thrown at us."
On three consecutive nights last month, the unit came under direct fire from motorbike
thieves, some of whom, the SOC police claim, had been released under the recent prison
amnesty triggered by UNTAC's human rights component.
"We would like to mount more mobile patrols," said the captain. "But
we don't have enough cars." He waves his arm in the direction of the courtyard
where one aging pickup truck sits waiting to take his men on patrol. The previous
night, it broke down more than seven times because of a faulty alternator.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the men in the ABU look with some envy at the
host of brand new UNTAC vehicles parked idly around the city.
But UNTAC's civilian police contingent has its problems too.
"People think we are here to run the police force," says Chief Superintendent
T.P. Fitzgerald of the Irish police. "But our mandate is only to advise, monitor
and control. We have no executive powers."
UNTAC is currently below its projected level of 3,000 civilian police, with a shortfall
of 1,000 personnel. And upon arrival, those civilian police will be deployed to the
provinces to safeguard the electoral registration teams.