Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has declared that Preah Sihanouk province must not develop a reputation for being a “crime base”, insisting that its image must be restored ahead of the Commune Council Election in order to regain the trust of foreign investors.

Sar Kheng made the remarks on March 9 while presiding over a meeting to review the province’s work results for 2021 and to set the agenda for 2022.

He said he had closely monitored the situation in the province and noticed that there have been numerous offences reportedly taking place.

He acknowledged that police have “worked hard” to crack down on offences and prevent them, but noted that they have continued to “evolve” and “become more complex, which requires greater attention”.

“We have cracked down on a lot of offences concerning kidnapping, robbery, murder, torture, and even problems of drugs and trafficking,” he said, citing a report from the provincial police.

High crime rates, coupled with a lack of security in the province, have adversely affected the prestige of the area as well as Cambodia, which has dampened foreign investor sentiment in recent months.

“I come here today because I want to emphasise the problems of crime in the province. Preah Sihanouk must now strive to thoroughly improve its image because [the notoriety] is disrupting investment from countries such as Japan, Korea, the US, the West, and ASEAN countries,” he said.

The National Police last week had denied the claims of a Chinese man who was reported to be a “blood slave” for criminal gangs. It said the case was “exaggerated and invented”, and had arrested four people for being complicit in allegedly inventing the story.

Without referring to the case, Sar Kheng said “false and exaggerated” information has been spreading internationally, especially among the Chinese public. He said such information, whether or not true, had scared investors and made them reluctant to invest in Cambodia.

“This is the big problem about the current situation within the province. We have to work hard . . . We cannot eradicate 100 per cent of crime, but we have to end most of these offences and not let such situations happen again,” he said.

“I looked at the pictures sent to me, and they seem very cruel,” he added, ostensibly referring to often gruesome images of Preah Sihanouk crime scenes and victims’ attack wounds.

“The pictures [of these crimes] are taken and then spread publicly all over China, all over the world, and they think that Cambodia is extremely terrifying, with robbers, kidnappers, and threats of violence happening all over Preah Sihanouk province.”

The minister also urged authorities to crack down on drug activity in the province, given that it is a busy port hub where illegal narcotics could be imported and exported, and warned that it was a problem that “should not be overlooked”.

“The first priority should be to eliminate all crime. Maintaining order is the second step,” he said.

Responding to reports of widespread illegal gambling in the province, Sar Kheng said he had reminded authorities to conduct administrative inspections to seize associated paraphernalia including illegal weapons, stolen goods and equipment used in the torture of individuals who were unable to repay debts.

“We will investigate illegal gambling because it is a source of the same crimes,” he said, in reference to the variety of offences he listed.

Provincial governor Kuoch Chamroeun said this year’s meeting focused on three major challenges: crimes relating to murder, kidnapping and illegal confinement; use of armed violence and the “improper” use of media and social media.

He said the province had already issued an “action plan and roadmap” to be enforced, adding that the authorities will increase controls on residences of foreign nationals, in cooperation with the General Department of Immigration, to prevent human trafficking and labour exploitation.

Chamroeun said that given the significant population of Chinese nationals in the province, his administration will set up a team of interpreters to scan Chinese language news for reports of criminal activity in the region.

Authorities will also step up patrols to identify “offences linked to drugs and weapons”, as well as increase inspections on the use of vehicle license plates issued by the police and the Royal Cambodian Armed forces (RCAF), he said, especially those that are attached to cars driven by Chinese people in the province.