A year ago, a mentally ill man was beaten to death by villagers who had mistaken him for a thief. Despite only four of those involved being sentenced, it was a harsher punishment than expected – in almost all instances of mob killings, no questions are even asked
Everyone helped to hit and beat him. I slapped him, but not to kill him.” Sera* is lounging against a post underneath his family’s large home. He is dull, listless and initially unwilling to talk.
Once he is sure the police have not come to rearrest him, he relaxes slightly. What happened, he explains, was “bad luck”.
“The police took photos with their phones, which showed the faces of people there. We all did it together, but they arrested only four of us,” he says.
The two dozen family members who have gathered around him chime in with various supporting statements: Sera was one of a hundred; he had just been trying to get a better look when the police took his photo; he’d definitely left by the time they burned the man’s body.
One year ago this week, the picturesque village of Srae Ambel, situated in a hard-to-reach district of Kampong Speu, was the staging ground for a particularly gruesome night of violence.
Late one evening, following a string of thefts in the area, an irate villager cornered a young man who appeared to be trying to break into his property. The man collared the suspect and frog-marched him to the house of village chief Choub Norn so he could call the police.
The rest of the village arrived before the police did, and began kicking and punching the stranger as he lay on the ground. Four police officers eventually came, but the mob didn’t stop. After a while, they picked up the motionless body, carried it to the dry rice paddies in between Srae Ambel and its nearest neighbour, and set fire to it.
Even by the standards of Cambodia’s unofficial mob juries, the murder was a particularly heinous miscarriage of justice.
It transpired that the man killed, Noun Puttrea, was a mentally ill 27-year-old who had gone missing from his home in Takeo. The following week, his family arrived to collect the body and show police a certificate documenting Puttrea’s condition. The thefts in Srae Ambel continued.
The sociology of murder
There is nothing uniquely Cambodian about mob violence. While there is a temptation to draw links between its local prevalence and psychological trauma inflicted by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, social theorists view the phenomenon almost solely in relation to the state – it exists in countries where people don’t trust the authorities to mete out fair punishment, and where the authorities in turn do not enforce the state’s legitimate monopoly on violence.
This happens “either because they are too weak to confront mobs or because they share the beliefs of the vigilantes”, Manfred Berg, author of Globalizing Lynching History, wrote in an email.
In Cambodia, such attacks are less frequent than they once were. At the turn of the millennium, lynching had become a worrying enough phenomenon for the UN Commission on Human Rights to dedicate a report to the subject, which noted 65 cases between 1999 and 2002.
The US State Department, which issues yearly briefings on the human rights situation in Cambodia, last mentioned the phenomenon in its 2010 summary.
Neither Licadho or Adhoc, the two Cambodian human rights organisations that have been most involved in documenting these incidents over the years, keep an official record of their frequency.
But even relying on cases reported in the media, it is clear that they are still far from freak occurrences. Over the course of 2015, the English-language press in Cambodia reported on at least four confirmed murders carried out by large groups. In one, the accused was merely caught stealing a chair.
The murder of Noun Puttrea is unusual in that it was prosecuted. Sera and three other men served jail terms, but paid about $4,000 each to be released after only eight months. Sera describes the payments as “compensation” that may have gone to the families, but mention of the transaction was the reason his family insisted he not give his real name or be photographed by Post Weekend.
Sera knows that he was unlucky that his victim turned out to be innocent. If he had been guilty, precedent suggests that the incident would have been forgotten. “If the dead guy was a thief, he should have be killed,” he said. It’s a sentiment that is widely shared.
“If I’d known he had mental problems, the police and I would have given him more protection,” said village chief Choub Norn, who was smarting from the loss of several cows at the time of Puttrea’s beating.
Constitutionally, Cambodia is a regional success story when it comes to exacting death as punishment: it remains one of only two ASEAN countries to have banned the death penalty by law, and has the longest continuous period of abolition in the region – 26 years.
But a belief that violent punishment delivered extrajudicially represents a legitimate form of “rough justice” persists across the country, as even a quick glance at the positive reaction to grainy footage of beatings posted on social media can attest to.
This was clearly illustrated in one of the most notorious cases of recent times, which took place in the relatively prosperous Kampong Cham village of Tropeang Boeng two and a half years ago.
On a rainy day in early October 2013, some 500-odd villagers gathered at the crossroads where Laing Pises lived with his wife Sek Thou and stepdaughter Muon Chenda.
Screams were coming from inside as an argument turned violent. Pises fought with the women, and eventually slashed their throats. When the surrounding crowd called for him to come out, he baited them by waving his wife’s severed hand. After several hours, villagers succeeded in dragging Pises from the property. They knocked him un-conscious with rocks and beat him to death.
Speaking last week, villagers in the houses surrounding the property could recall graphic details of Pises’ actions. “I looked in through the door, and it looked like [Sek Thou] was sleeping and her legs shaking,” said Yi Touch, Thou’s sister-in-law, gesturing animatedly.
But no one could recall the faces of the villagers who had killed Pises, or even who had struck a blow. The revenge killing was never investigated, with the police who had been present during the standoff claiming that the scale of the crowd would make prosecution impossible.
Sek Kak, 86, the village’s chief and father of the murdered Sek Thou, said that he supported the killing of his son-in-law Pises.
“The villagers came to help,” he explained. He added that he had since found peace because he believed his daughter and granddaughter had been reborn locally – villagers had given birth to babies with birthmarks that resembled the injuries inflicted on the dead.
As well as residual support among certain authorities for rough justice, Licadho president Kek Galabru cited police fears about personal safety as key to the frequent lack of intervention. “They are afraid the mob may turn on them – a risk that many, anecdotally at least, appear unwilling to take,” she explained.
The dangers of getting involved in such a heated situation are widely acknowledged. Mariam Arthur, a long-term expat resident in Phnom Penh, can vividly recall the day less than a year ago when she accidentally disrupted a beating near the National Museum.
Seeing what she mistook for a moto accident surrounded by concerned bystanders, she pushed her way to the centre believing she could administer first aid.
“Once I was there in the middle of everybody, I could see what it was,” she said earlier this week. “He was bleeding, huddled in foetal position but not really able to put his hands over his head.”
“I stood there for a minute and hung my head and took a deep breath and thought: ‘Oh now what do I do’ When you’re outside you can ignore it, but now this guy’s head is at my feet it’s a different decision.”
At first, Arthur said, the beating continued around her, even as she shouted for the crowd to stop and made a call to the police. When a couple of bystanders joined her in the defence, the tide began to change.
Arthur stood over the man until the police arrived. When they did, it transpired that no one in the violent crowd had seen the purported moto theft for which the man on the ground was being punished.
He was taken away by two police officers on a motorbike, and the attackers dispersed without being questioned.
“Definitely nobody was thinking of the mob behaviour as a crime. Not the people doing it, not the police, nobody,” Arthur said.
Only part of the problem
Viewing mob violence in isolation is difficult. Attacks on thieves and – not infrequently – supposed sorcerers, relate most fundamentally to personal frustrations or injustices, and the search for someone to blame for them.
But the focus of this anger frequently intersects with other considerations. Mob violence has over the years disproportionately targeted the Vietnamese community – most recently in the 2014 case of Vietnamese-Cambodian Tran Van Chien, killed by a dozen Cambodians after a traffic altercation turned nasty.
The boundaries with other politicised forms of violence and intimidation are also blurred. Following the aggression against striking drivers from Capitol Tours that occurred earlier this month, counter-protesters were accused of acting as “hired thugs” for the company – a claim they denied. The violent attack on two CNRP politicians that took place outside the National Assembly in October last year were described by commentators at the time as carried out by a state-sponsored “mob”.
Brigitte Bohours, co-author of Violence and the Civilising Process in Cambodia, published late last year, said that the seemingly lax attitude of the police towards certain acts of violence could be politically motivated, even at village level.
“It could be hypothesised that, in these circumstances, not to stop it is to show that anyone who doesn’t toe the line, that’s what is going to happen to you,” she said.
But Bohours, who trawled the police blotters of local newspapers to conduct her quantitative research, believes there is reason to be optimistic.
“From 1990 to early 2000 we have many examples of the police actually encouraging villagers to kill and they didn’t really care what happened,” she said. “But we have evidence that this has declined a lot.”
She insists that the Cambodian situation not be seen as the result of any intrinsic failure of empathy or morality. “In Europe in the 18th century, it was considered OK to butcher people in a public space,” she pointed out. “But over the years, this has changed.”
“In Cambodia, we found over the years that the same process has been happening,” she said. “If the justice system becomes better, less corrupt, then this trend will continue as well. We’re not saying it’s perfect now, but that’s why we’re optimistic.” * Name changed to protect identity