The U.N. High Commission for Refugees, one of the largest international aid organizations
in Cambodia, has threatened to suspend its operations unless the new government takes
action against a suspected car theft ring that is systematically stripping NGOs of
"We are committed to the people of Cambodia ...[but] if our essential tools
of work are stolen and our staff's safety is threatened we would have no other option
but to re-orient or cease our activities," the U.N. agency said in statement
released on Sep. 17.
UNHCR, which along with its implementing agencies has more than 350 vehicles in Cambodia
has lost six cars to thieves in the last two weeks. Most of them were taken at gun-point
from aid workers as they were returning home from work.
Until recently, humanitarian organizations had been spared a wave of robberies which
cost UNTAC more than 170 vehicles, most of them taken during a two month period after
"We are fed up. We are losing cars every night," said a UNHCR official
who declined to be named.
"We have tried everything, tried constantly to re-inforce security measures
but whatever we do they are always one step ahead. They are organized and professional.
I fear that this is increasing and soon there will be no one to prevent it,"
The highly organized nature of the car thefts and the recovery of two stolen UNTAC
Land Cruisers from two Cambodian generals has led many people to suspect high-level
military involvement in the crime epidemic.
This suspicion was further re-inforced by the systematic way the car thieves seemed
to have shifted their focus from UNTAC to NGO cars after the United Nations said
it would delete the stolen vehicles from a list of equipment that was to be left
behind when the peacekeepers pull out.
But then in the week from Aug. 13 to Aug. 20 UNTAC lost another 12 vehicles.
"It has been a really bad week, we lost five on Wednesday alone," said
UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt.
"The trend seemed to be UNTAC and then NGOs. We thought we had stopped the haemorrhaging
but now I don't know. It seems like everybody is being hit. I heard even the U.S.
mission lost a car," he said.
The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, an umbrella organization of NGOs met with
Foreign Minister Norodom Sirivudh on Sept. 15 to express their concerns over the
thefts and the increasingly violent nature of the crimes after its members lost 12
cars in the post-election period.
Sirivudh told the NGOs that there was little he could do until the legal government
takes power. He did promise, however, to organize a meeting between the Ministry
of Interior, Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Defence and the NGOs. Sirivudh
said he would also make a national television appeal to local staff of NGOs to be
NGO workers however firmly believe that it is not the drivers who are stealing the
cars but members of a well-connected racket.
Nick Hughes, spokesman for the CCC and a former policeman said the thefts had all
the markings of an organized ring.
"The modus operandi is very similar, you wait for the car to come to you and
take it. It is a very slick operation," he said.
Hughes cited the case of one NGO Land Cruiser which was recovered by Cambodian police
shortly before midnight some eight hours after it had been stolen. When the police
arrived at the garage the vehicle had already been taken to different stops throughout
the city where spare parts were removed and it had been stripped down ready to be
At the same time as Sirivudh was meeting with the CCC representatives, an NGO driver
waiting outside the Indoswiss courier agency in Phnom Penh was robbed of his car.
The incident was particularly alarming for NGO workers because it marked the first
time a driver was violently attacked. Previously most thefts had been at gun point
at the gates of workers residences.
"It was quite nasty. He was smacked across the face and hauled out of the car,"
In addition to the practical problems caused by the loss of mobility and the sheer
cost of replacing a $30,000 4-wheel drive vehicle, NGOs also fear that the rising
level of robberies is going to make it harder to recruit and keep qualified local
"My guards are scared and running away. I have excellent staff but what can
you do when one of them gets threatened. The temptation is big, especially when they
are threatened by guns as well," said one administrator working with a U.N.
UNTAC has so far only been able to recover a handful of the stolen cars. Their efforts
were further hindered after a controversial UNTAC raid on a politician's house in
a bid to recover a Land Cruiser mistakenly believed to have been stolen. The politician,
Chheang Vun, locked the six-man UNTAC team in his compound and refused to let them
go until they signed a piece of paper saying they had acted unlawfully. In the wake
of the raid, the Cambodian press and in particular the former pro-SOC papers lashed
out at UNTAC for abusing the rights of Cambodians.
"UNTAC is disdainful towards and looks down on our nation," charged Koh
Santipheap. If Mr. Vun had not created a public scene, "UNTAC would increase
its violations," it said in an article that was typical of the local press reaction.
As a result of the botched raid, the Cambodian police have refused to work with UNTAC
investigators in cases involving senior military or government politicians, leading
many inside UNTAC to believe the whole debacle may in fact have been a set up.
"They knew the UNTAC team would arrive without papers and the way the tip-off
came and everything else fell into place has got a lot of people very suspicious.
Ghanabatt believes they know where a lot of the vehicles are being kept but without
police cooperation they can't move," said one well-placed UNTAC source.
The attacks on UNTAC have particularly upset workers at other U.N. bodies.
"If they don't want us here I think we should pull out. We are here for humanitarian
assistance, we came to give physical help not to dictate or interfere in government
affairs but to assist refugees, ...bring medical help. We give help we don't tell
them what to do," said one irate relief worker who declined to be named.
Ken Inoue, deputy director of the Phnom Penh provincial HQ, who lost an NGO-number-plated
car at gun point said the rash of vehicle thefts had soured the feelings many UNTAC
employees had about Cambodia as they prepared to leave.
"A lot of people are starting to blame the morality of the Cambodian people.
Maybe Prince Sihanouk should make an appeal to the people of Cambodia that they should
not steal property, they should not treat UNTAC in this way," he said.
Inoue added, however, that he did not think it was fair to blame the common Cambodians
for the car theft problem. "I don't think the person who stole my car is driving
it right now. He didn't need it for himself or his family."
Some NGO workers are also angry at UNTAC.
"I blame UNTAC because they did nothing but add each stolen car onto their list.
Cambodian are just laughing at UNTAC and it's too late. If they had stated at the
beginning they would not accept this, maybe it would have never gotten to this point,"
said the UNHCR official.
The Cambodian press has blamed UNTAC itself for the thefts. Raksemai Kampuchea in
an article titled "The Way to Catch Thieves" said "UNTAC should take
a look at its own employees.. I'm afraid there may be an inside conspirator,"
the article said.