IT is hot in the dappled half light under this camouflage tarpaulin - hot, but cooler
than outside in the sun-beaten compound where moments before "A section"
of the Flying Tigers had held their morning parade.
Precision drilling it was not, but there is something about this group of policemen
which set them apart. An air of cohesion, a common sense of purpose. Their quarters
are clean and tidy and recently oiled weapons are neatly stacked in a purpose built
The morning parade over, "A section" tumble into their canvas barracks.
They joke and slap each other, hand cuffs and sidearms revealed as they slip off
hellishly hot flak jackets. Some tumble onto a row of cots, others sit down either
side of a long table.
A television at one end is showing the Atlanta Olympics. Two of them exchange lewd
comments and laugh as they regard the Speedo clad form of a female diver climbing
from the pool.
Cards. Cards and cigarettes. Something to pass the time, sometimes hours on end before
they get the call to move. Then they face the prospect of confronting well armed
criminals with serious attitude and not much to lose. But that's the way it goes
in a unit like this, prolonged periods of boredom punctuated with short bursts of
heart thumping excitement.
The Tigers are one of two response teams set up by Cambodia's Interior Ministry in
a bid to curb the surge of violent crime which has swamped Phnom Penh over the past
four months. Consisting of two teams of heavily armed police they specialize in rapid
response to kidnappings, armed robberies and car hijackings.
The 82 man unit of volunteers has adopted a high profile in Phnom Penh - motorbikes,
sometimes carrying two pillion riders armed with AK 47's and with the word POLICE
emblazoned across their backs, cruising the city's night spots conducting random
In an innovative approach, the Interior Ministry has advertised the unit's telephone
numbers in the local press: "SOS NUMBERS. If you have been the victim of a crime
call THE FLYING TIGERS: 366 841 or 720 235..." Twenty four hours a day two Toyota
pick-ups wait for the order to go from English, French and Chinese speaking police
who staff the unit's humble operations center 24 hours a day.
The Commander of "A section", Vong Sary, is sinewy and square jawed. He
looks tough and uncompromising. He ignores the interpreter and looks me straight
in the eye.
Accepting a cigarette, a smile breaks across his face.
"I am in big trouble with my wife, I spend too much time here," he laughs,
explaining his section is operational for twenty four hour periods, one day on, one
day off. "And I only earn about $20 a month so on my days off I must try to
earn money as a moto-taxi driver."
He draws hard on the cigarette and shakes his head.
So why did he volunteer for the Tigers? The smile disappears.
" I hate criminals. They make our society fall down, we cannot develop with
so many criminals."
Sary went on to explain that the mobile units, together with other Interior Ministry
initiatives like roadblocks tasked to confiscate illegal weapons, have significantly
reduced the incidence of violent crime in the capital, particularly against expatriate
But he is under no illusions, claiming that most of those busted in the Ministry's
offensive are what he calls "playboys" - high spirited youngsters with
access to weapons and a hankering to live the lavish lifestyle of their video heroes.
He elaborates with an anecdote about a gang of youths who had been stealing motos
and bailing up foreigners. "They would tell people not to call the police otherwise
they would be killed," he said of the group who hung out at the Martini Nightclub
and whose crimes paid for long stays at expensive hotels.
"We ambushed them close to Martinis one night. They didn't put up a fight because
they were too frightened by all the uniformed police."
Those that are left are the hard core types, well armed and with vehicles, mobile
phones and often wearing police, military or military police uniforms. And yes, he
said, sometimes these guys actually are police, MPs or soldiers seeking to supplement
their meagre government salaries.
"We do the best we can," Sary said, "but we need training and materials."
In the Tiger's stuffy, sparsely furnished operations room, a policeman is calling
the registration number of a stolen vehicle into the hand piece of an HF radio. The
unit's Deputy Director, Keep Saroeun, sits behind his desk, a couple of telephones
and a hand held radio neatly arranged before him.
Saroeun agrees with his section Commander that the youth gangs, and in particular
the notorious Bong Thom gang, have been broken up, but that hard core professionals
And though things are relatively quiet for the Tigers at present, their case load
for July reveals the scale of the problem which confronts them.
"Last month we dealt with four kidnappings, one involving a ransom demand of
$40,000, thirteen armed robberies, two revenge murders and a number of stolen cars,"
"The biggest problems we face now are kidnappings in the Chinese community and
car hijacking. At least 100 cars have been stolen and sent over the border to Vietnam
since the beginning of the year. It is worse now than any time since UNTAC.
"Many of these criminals are foreigners who have fled countries like China because
of their activities. To deal with these people we need better resources," he
"We need more motorbikes and vehicles and radios. The Interior Ministry provides
two dollars a day for food for the men, but the men need better salaries, it is difficult
to be professional with a low salary."
The Tigers recently had a public relations, and financial, success with the recovery
of three vehicles, including one hijacked at gun point from the Singapore military
"The Singapore embassy gave us $5,000 and CMAC gave us $2,000 when we recovered
their vehicles. But the Americans just said thank you," he said with a shrug
referring to a vehicle recently recovered after it was stolen from a US Embassy garage.
"We bought some more equipment and gave the men a bonus."
One of the telephones rings and Saroeun begins to write down the particulars of yet
another stolen car. He confirms the details before turning to a subordinate and issuing
a series of instructions. Sensing I'm in the way, I rise and extend my hand, thanking
him for his time.
"No problem, we want to protect foreigners, they are good for Cambodia's development,"
he beams. "Oh, and aaah... the guys would really appreciate a carton of cigarettes."