With an international manhunt tracking down the where abouts of disgraced Phnom Penh
police chief Heng Pov, civil society commentators are saying his dramatic fall from
grace sheds light on the workings of Cambodia's law enforcement agencies.
"Heng Pov is not the only one," said one leading figure in Cambodian civil
society who asked to remain anonymous. "He is just one senior policeman. How
many others are of the same level or higher? How many others are just like him?"
There are around 67,000 civil police in Cambodia, and another 10,000 in the Military
Police and Gendarmerie, double the number before 1993, said an Asian Human Rights
Commission report by Muzamil Jaleel.
"The basic reason for the high recruitment numbers is the politicization of
the police force," Jaleel said. "Untrained and professional policemen dominate
both the civilian and military police. Officers and lower-rank personnel all have
more loyalties to the political party they are affiliated to than to the government
Cambodia's recent history has caused this politicization of various government departments,
including the police and armed forces, Jaleel said.
"The Pol Pot regime destroyed most of the state and society institutions and
replaced them with party structures in order to enforce order and obedience,"
he said. "The Vietnamese-sponsored communist regime from 1979 onwards continued
the model of an all-controlling state apparatus, with no separation between state
Despite the arrival of UNTAC in 1992, the situation has not changed in the 14 years
since and local rights groups say the politicization has severely damaged the functioning
of state institutions.
"When you politicize national institutions it cannot work; there should be training
and tests to create the potential of the talented rising through the ranks,"
said Kek Galabru, president of human rights NGO Licadho. "People should work
as a civil servant for the nation, not for a party."
Politicization limits the opportunities to progress through the ranks according to
merit, which is a frustration for many civil servants.
"I have worked for the police since 1986," said one Toul Kork policeman
who declined to be named. "I am still in the same position because I don't have
money or powerful patrons."
There is no possibility of climbing through the ranks on the basis of personal ability,
"The fact that most of the posts in the police force are being sold has become
gospel truth," Jaleel said. "The other pervasive phenomenon is the tremendous
The deep-rooted and widespread politicization of Cambodia's national institutions
has led some to question whether the government's recent spate of high-profile arrests
and prosecutions of police officials for corruption genuinely indicate a commitment
to eradicating corruption at all levels of Cambodia's law enforcement agencies.
"Political will could depoliticize these institutions [and] if we could do this
then the law would be better enforced and implemented," Galabru said. "But
we must wait and see how many more [police] they will go for now."
Some civil society leaders have suggested that high-profile prosecutions, such as
that of Pov, are in reality the result of personal feuding within the politicized
"With Heng Pov the problems have been going on for many years - why do they
decide to punish him now?" said Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center
for Human Rights. "I think other high-ranking officials could be behaving as
Heng Pov does but as they don't have a conflict with others within government they
are not punished."
But Sokha says that though it may remain a politicized institution, the last decade
has seen considerable improvements in the actual functioning of the Cambodian police
"If we compare the situation now to how it was immediately after UNTAC, the
police are better now," he said. "Before, in prisons, in jails, the conditions
were very bad; incidents of torture were very high and the police didn't have much
idea regarding human rights."
Police training - provided by both UNTAC and a variety of foreign donors - has helped
improve the quality of the police force. But public confidence in the service is
still not strong as people know it takes power or influence to get things done, Sokha
"There is not much public confidence in the police or the government; if people
have problems they go to NGOs," he said. "Not all the police are bad but
they all have to follow instructions from on high. If they have orders to investigate
a particular crime they do, if they don't have orders, they won't."
That there is a problem with the service provided by the police force is widely acknowledged
but difficult to prove, Galabru said.
"In theory the police protect the citizens; but we hear reports that when citizens
ask for police protection they have to pay for the service," she said. "We
have reports of arrests being followed by beatings in an attempt to extract confessions
or money. We have reports that if you pay you can escape - and if this is not the
case then why in prison are the majority of people poor? Where are the rich?"
Awareness that money or political connections are key factors determining whether
justice will be done may lead to public scepticism about the purported aims of the
recent spate of arrests, Galabru said.
"I don't think the people believe the government has the will to prosecute more
officials," she said. "The Cambodian people are not stupid, they don't
believe everything. They will know that this is something internal - unless the government
really proves them wrong."
That money and influence are important in determining whether the police will work
for or against you is apparent from the inconsistencies in the police force's ability
to solve crimes, Sokha said. For example, police are often unable to capture the
murderers of anti-government activists or journalists, yet are remarkably efficient
at solving crimes committed against the government.
"What is most important is the commitment of the government," he said.
"Our police have the capacity to solve crimes but it requires money or political
will to get things done."
But this need to pay for the service of police, or the ability to pay one's way out
of police custody, are key factors which lesson public confidence in law enforcement
agencies, said Steve Moore, Community Safety Officer at the Cambodian Criminal Justice
Assistance Project (CCJAP).
"People don't like the 'fee for service' approach, but despite this there are
many people who think the police are doing a good job," he said. "Access
to justice is still problematic - and obviously the lower down the food chain you
are, the harder it is."
Sokha said financial incentives are clearly the most effective way of obtaining police
"If a thief steals two cows from the people, and the people go to the police
and say 'If you can get our cows back we will give one cow to you' then it will be
easy to find those cows," he said.
But this pervasive corruption at lower levels is caused by corruption among the upper
echelons of the police force, Sokha said.
"Police see their leaders' behavior," he said. "They know generals
have good villas, many wives, nice cars, and everyone wants to be the same. It is
the implicit instructions they receive."
The life of an average policeman is entirely dominated by the need to please those
slightly higher up the chain of command, said the anonymous Toul Kork policeman.
"I was so busy I didn't have any time to spend with my family," he said.
If there was any disturbance my police chief would send me out to work, even at 3am,
and it was risky work too, confronting robbers. But if I didn't do as my police chief
ordered me to I would be punished. Some police chiefs take away positions, fire people,
as punishment but mine wasn't that bad."
This utter dependency on pleasing those further up the hierarchy is again rooted
in the politicization of the police force. From 1975 onwards, party functionaries
in Cambodia have had a duel function of working both for the party and for the government
"[Before UNTAC] the control by the party of government functions could be well
understood by the fact that the police chief falls under the direct control of the
party chief in the provinces," Jaleel said. "This practice was carried
on by the CPP."
Party affiliation remains to this day a key factor in determining whether justice
will come your way, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of
"The police should be independent and work for the good of the state as a whole,
not work for some interests," he said. "In Cambodia it is different - the
armed forces serve the powerful, especially the CPP, in fact to tell the truth the
police in Cambodia are not independent."
The widespread corruption in the implementation of laws is apparent - and Cambodian
citizens are not unaware that it is largely power politics or hard cash that determine
whether or not justice will be done, Sokha said.
"If the government wanted to find all those who killed rights activists and
union leaders in Cambodia they could find them," he said. "So why don't
they? Because most of the killings relate to political issues. Now they accuse Heng
Pov of being behind all these assassinations. At the time, people would have accused
Heng Pov but they couldn't because he was powerful. Maybe this is why we cannot find
the killers in these political assassinations - because the killer is in power. I
hope when these killers lose their power we will find them - we can wait for justice."