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The "quiet selling" of Teak Tla's bullets and guns

The "quiet selling" of Teak Tla's bullets and guns

THIS was a great story, a blow by blow description of illegal weapons sales to gangsters

and Khmer Rouge guerrillas, flagrant disregard of government efforts to control violent

crime - guns, grenades, land mines - all openly for sale in this terrible place,

this market of death.

As we rode out along Pochentong and towards Phnom Penh's Teak Tla market, I could

see it all - stall holders swamping me, urging me to buy from their racks of AK47's

and rocket launchers. Reaching into boxes of grenades, they'd jostle each other and

shout as they offered these wares in out-stretched arms for inspection.

"Sir! You buy from me! Special price for you! Sir! Sir!"

But as we pulled off the road, parked the bike and descended on foot into the boggy,

tarpaulin covered depression which is Teak Tla market, I noticed it was strangely

quiet. In any other the amputee beggars would be on to us by now, and small kids

would be fanning us frantically as they demanded money and Coca Cola.

The only people around seemed to be soldiers and military policemen. This, I reasoned,

was a good sign. We stepped gingerly through the mud, slowly and carefully looking

over the stalls to either side.

Holsters, uniforms, caps and badges, belts, boots and the occasional bayonet. Empty

ammunition boxes, but, other than on the hips of the assorted military types lounging

around, not a sign of the dull glint of gun metal.

I looked harder into the shadows and below the trellises and into the dark corners.

Nothing. Not a sausage. Zip. My interpreter introduced us to one of the stall holders

who, curiously, all seemed to be women.

"Ah, journalist," she said, "we've seen a lot of them here in the

past two weeks."

"Ah, journalist," her friend added, "One word, fifty dollars."

We were now surrounded by five or six women and they were all laughing, not, I suspect,

at the wit of their friend but at us and our disappointed expressions.

"No, no, no. I don't sell weapons. I used to sell weapons, but not anymore,

not since the government told us we were not allowed to anymore."

Another outburst of laughter which rapidly fell away. The women exchanged furtive

glances.

"If you want to buy weapons it's best to buy after making friends with some

soldiers - too many secret spies," the first woman said without the slightest

hint of humor in her voice.

It seemed clear that we would get little further and so, thanking them for their

cooperation, we moved off, still peering into the shadows for a glimpse of oiled

gun metal.

Though the open sale of weapons at Teak Tla was never officially sanctioned, the

market has long been the first port of call for anybody wanting to buy arms and ammunition

in Cambodia's capital.

One vendor even claimed the government gave money to its soldiers and police so they

could supplement the weapons from military armories with purchases from Teak Tla.

Up until recently, he said, $70 would get you an AK47 in good condition, M16's went

for a similar price and semi-automatic hand guns could be purchased for between $100

and $130.

"Soldiers and policemen would come here and sell their guns and bullets. If

you had the money, you could get anything you wanted within half an hour. We would

just go and see the soldiers nearby.

"I think if you have the money, you can still buy guns," he said. "But

you might have to wait a little longer."

Our conversation ended as the man rose to his feet and disappeared into the shadows

of a nearby house with a group of men who have been waiting quietly nearby. As he

left two soldiers negotiated a deal with his wife. They pulled four sets of olive

green trousers from a plastic bag, and the woman agreed to buy two of them.

According to her, many of the vendors are married to soldiers and police. "Sure,

it's a family business," she said matter-of-factly.

However, authorities have become increasingly nervous about a spate of violent crimes

involving firearms in the capital during the past three months. Until recently, and

despite Cambodia's violent history, Phnom Penh had been relatively safe, particularly

for foreigners.

But senior officials are now expressing concern publicly about the impact of crimes

like armed robbery and kidnapping on Cambodia's economic development and the risk

that foreigners will simply write off the country as too dangerous a place in which

to do business.

The Interior Ministry has organized special crime response teams, police have set

up road blocks and conducted weapons searches, seizing thousands of firearms and

hundreds of grenades. Legislators have announced their intention to tighten licensing

laws for civilian gun ownership and introduce tougher accountability procedures for

weapons used by the military and police.

And late last month the stall holders of Teak Tla were called together for a meeting

with Ministry of Interior officials who ordered them to stop their illegal trade.

They were given fifteen days to sell their existing stocks and were warned they would

be imprisoned for up to five years if they ignored the directive.

"But it is very difficult for the soldiers," the woman we are talking to

said. "They only earn $15 to $20 a month and they have to feed their families."

As she continued, a motorcycle splashed through the mud and pulled up between where

we are sitting and a military policeman standing about five meters away.

Its rider, a young man in tattered civilian clothes, stepped off the bike and approached

the stall, surreptitiously pulling a round for a K54 handgun from his pocket and

handing it to the woman.

They exchanged a few words and the woman disappeared, returning a few minutes later

with a handful of shiny, new cartridges. Obligingly, she placed them in a small plastic

bag.

The young man handed over a wad of money, climbed back on to his motorbike and drove

off.

The woman smiled. "I think the quiet selling will continue," she said,

"Cambodians are not afraid. Pol Pot's people used to say if you steal, we will

kill you - we are used to threats."

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