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Crime and no punishment

Scenes of crime. The busy streets of Phnom Penh have seen a surge in petty crime such as bag theft
Scenes of crime. The busy streets of Phnom Penh have seen a surge in petty crime such as bag theft. Charlotte Pert

Crime and no punishment

With the number of bag-snatching incidents continuing to soar, embassies are left swamped and more tourists and locals are ending up in hospital after bungled robberies. So what can be done to clamp down on street crime?

Cambodia is in the grip of a crime wave. In the past year, the rise in bag theft by motorbike gangs has increased in Phnom Penh, mirroring an increase in more serious crimes.

Since there are no reliable police statistics, anecdotal evidence shows that more tourists are being robbed, according to three major embassies.

“What we can state is a continuous increase of loss of passports during all of 2013,” wrote Joachim Baron von Marschall, German ambassador to Cambodia, in an email. “[This trend] accelerated in the first trimester of this year, exceeding the numbers for the whole of 2012.”

It was a similar story from the US embassy.

“Anecdotally, we have seen a rise in petty theft,” wrote Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the US embassy. “We encourage US citizens to exercise caution and keep their valuable belongings out of sight as a target for thieves.”

Scenes of crime. The busy streets of Phnom Penh have seen a surge in petty crime such as bag theft.
Scenes of crime. The busy streets of Phnom Penh have seen a surge in petty crime such as bag theft. Charlotte Pert

Nicolas Baudouin, first secretary at the French embassy, revealed statistics to show the rise in street crime. “The figures show an increase from 139 passports stolen in 2011, to 190 in 2012 and to 332 in 2013,” he wrote. “Over the first three months of this year, 46 French nationals reported a lost passport due to a robbery [because of] bag snatching.”

The increase in bag theft has seen an increase in the number of victims who have suffered serious injuries. A tourist police official said there were 705 crime and motor accidents involving tourists last year, compared with 570 in 2012.

“The majority of the crimes committed are for financial gain and opportunistic,” states a 2013 US government report on Cambodia by the Overseas Security Advisory Council. “While the chances of being a victim increase dramatically at night, daytime robberies are very common: pickpocketing and purse- or bag-snatching is rampant, especially while riding in tuk-tuks.

“Transportation centres, market areas, special events, the riverfront area and crowded buses travelling to the provinces are prime areas.

“Youth gangs continue to operate unimpeded throughout Phnom Penh. These gangs can be violent and occasionally innocent civilians have been injured or killed. The perceived ineffectiveness within the Cambodian National Police often leads to vigilante-style justice. There was an increase in the past year of the number of reports received from embassy personnel, NGOs [non-government organisations] and expatriates of ‘snatch-and-grab’ thefts while riding in tuk-tuks and of residential break-ins.”

Again, the report offers few figures but voices concern over the general trend – petty crime and violent crime are increasing.

Figures from the French embassy for 2013 amount to nearly one report a day for French citizens alone. Since those numbers do not include other nationalities and locals, the extent of the problem becomes clear. In the past three years, Phnom Penh has become one of the most crime-ridden cities in Southeast Asia.

Almost every expat has a personal story or one told to them by a friend or associate. Rainbow Li, an intern at Post Weekend, had her bag snatched when riding a tuk-tuk last week.

“I leaned forward to point the direction home to my driver, and two men on a motorbike grabbed the bag and disappeared at the only moment my hand wasn’t holding it,” she said.

Li lost her passport and a considerable amount of money. She believes the thieves on the bike had been following her since leaving the office, and that the tuk-tuk driver may have been involved, since he gave no reaction to the theft. It was a very well-timed, carefully planned snatch-and-grab.

“They were professionals. They knew exactly what they were doing,” she said.

Web forums and travel blogs are filled with such anecdotes of crime and injury. In none of the examples did an effective police response result in the perpetrator’s capture. There are only warnings and advice for others: Don’t take a bag out at night, don’t wear expensive watches or jewellery, on a motorbike keep bags between you and the driver, don’t try to fight the thieves – your life means little to them.

“The country that I once regarded as rough in places but largely peaceful has turned into a place that leaves me feeling unnerved,” wrote Kate McCulley on her popular travel website www.adventurouskate.com late last year, based on multiple personal experiences.

The rise in such crimes can be attributed in part to greater wealth disparity between rich and poor. Other reasons include more incoming tourists, especially from China, whose citizens have less experience of foreign travel and financial and class pressures on urban workers who may need to support rural families. To add to the problem, there is poor city infrastructure, such as a lack of street lighting and decayed and cluttered footpaths that force pedestrians to walk in the street.

While tourists may be softer targets, such crimes are not limited to foreigners. They also affect increasing numbers of Cambodians, with restaurant workers in BKK1 and the riverside reporting incidents that affected roughly equal numbers of tourists and locals.

Police “tea money” is part of the problem, as it fosters inaction. Everyone interviewed on the subject was forced into paying the police at least $5. For officers earning $100 a month, the extra $5 to $30 earned off of each report becomes quite lucrative.

And the victims have no choice but to pay – they need to file claims for insurance companies and embassies. Investigating the thefts would take resources the police may not have, and finding the culprits might involve danger and would cut off a valuable income stream.

A consequence of this is that petty crime usually goes unreported. For every reported case there might be 10 or 20 where the police are not involved – attempted thefts that were unsuccessful or the loss simply absorbed with a shrug as one of the costs of intrepid travel. Most victims assume that the chances of police assistance are minimal. Those who did file reports rarely hear about any subsequent investigation.

As for the tourist police, they did not respond to requests for comment for this article. So, I can only refer to my case.

A motorcycle pulled up alongside in the dark lane between Wat Phnom and the riverfront, and the man on the back slipped a hand through my camera strap. The other end of the strap was tightly wound around my right wrist, and when the strap didn’t break the only thing that could give way was me. I flew through the air behind the bike, one arm stretched in front of me, Superman-style, and when I landed, smashing my head, shattering my shoulder and cracking three ribs, the bike continued to drag me along for a block until the strap released.

Light-headed, I picked myself up. My clothes were shredded and wet with blood. I felt no pain, however, and the camera and heavy lens had landed softly in my right palm, unscratched. Walking was no problem.

The motorbike circled around again, looking for spoils – the two young men scowled as they passed. As I walked back towards lit streets, people stopped and stared. Tuk-tuk drivers followed, but whether out of kindness or criminal intent I couldn’t tell.

Although fearful of organised gangs, of drivers affiliated with the thieves taking me somewhere to finish the job, I had no choice. I hailed one and asked for a clinic.

We arrived at a dark shop house with a small green cross on a dirty sign. The driver had to wake the staff, a man and woman sleeping on the same cots on which they performed surgery. They quickly stitched up gashes along my right eyebrow, the side of my face and along my right shoulder. They handed me small bags of antibiotics and painkillers, as well as the $40 bill. I was satisfied – if that was the worst of it, I’d come out lightly. I couldn’t put on my shirt again, and one shoe had also been torn apart. I returned to my guesthouse barefoot, topless and covered in bandages.

Once I lay down, though, it was clear that there were problems. My head grew hazier and more muddled. Forming a coherent thought sequence became difficult. And I couldn’t sit back up. Agony shot across my chest if I tried. With the sleepiness came a hazy paranoia.

My brain had rattled in its cage and perhaps bruised itself, swelling up. I couldn’t focus on the gecko on the ceiling. Convulsions and nausea then gripped my body. I was hyperventilating, shaking like an epileptic. This must be what going into shock felt like. By this point it was 3am, and suddenly I was worried I was dying. That fear helped me up.

The bars were still open in the street, young women sitting outside shops looking on in wide-eyed alarm as, barefoot, topless and shaking, I found another tuk-tuk. Again I had no choice but to trust the driver.
I asked for a particular modern Western-style hospice, and it was a relief when we arrived into the clean white halls and smell of Dettol. Despite my state, they were hesitant to admit me without proof of insurance, and I was unable to read or even write my name.

I knew I was concussed, that all the stitches at the last clinic hadn’t stemmed the considerable bleeding, and something, maybe many things, were broken. I was barely cognisant, and the right side of my body was shutting down.

X-rays revealed a shattered clavicle but no skull fracture at least. Weeks later more scans would find the cracked ribs. I would need immediate surgery that they couldn’t do here. The night nurse waited with me until the morning.

Two surgeries and 10 months of physiotherapy have followed, with the shoulder still not healed but on course. It could have been worse, as they say, with the head wounds only centimetres from causing more significant and permanent damage. The hospital beds were full of others who had similar stories, some people coming out considerably worse, even dying of their wounds.

The police station closest to the incident was unhelpful to the point of being openly hostile. Tourist police were slightly better but still asked for money to fill out the forms. The worst aspect of such accidents is the feeling of violation, the loss of trust in strangers, that follows. If my case had helped expose or combat the problem, led to greater enforcement or countermeasures, it would be easier to grasp retrospective positives. Instead it’s only a very small voice in a collective large and unwavering scream.


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