Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday cast a negative light on Phnom Penh, labelling the capital a hotbed for criminal activity and likening the levels of street crime to the Ho Chi Minh City of yore, where he said it was once unsafe to walk around with a good pen in your pocket.
Speaking at an annual meeting of City Hall officials, Kheng reprimanded his subordinates for the state of crime in Cambodia’s capital.
“Phnom Penh right now is full of theft, which is similar to Ho Chi Minh City years ago,” he said.
The minister said that, in the past, when he visited Ho Chi Minh, someone warned him that if he had a good pen and put it in his pocket someone would steal it. His travel companion did not listen to the advice and by the time he returned to Cambodia, the pen was gone
“Now it is our turn. Prey Nokor [Ho Chi Minh] got rid of its problems. We do not know how they did it; now we cannot see them anymore,” because the levels of crime in the two cities are so different, he said.
“What happened in the city in Vietnam in the past, now it happens in Phnom Penh, causing heavy social insecurity,” he added.
The minister called on police forces across the city to step up their efforts to reduce the crime rate.
According to figures released by City Hall, in 2014 Phnom Penh Municipal Police dealt with 564 cases – including misdemeanours and felonies – and arrested 762 suspects.
Un Sam An, Wat Phnom commune police chief, who was at yesterday’s meeting, agreed that street crime was a big issue, but said authorities were already doing their best to address it.
“My police officials make an effort to crack down on robberies and street thefts. We had an almost 100 per cent success rate in 2014,” he claimed. “Most of the thefts happen on Cambodian people, not foreigners.”
But Kheng said that foreigners are often victims of crime, and said French nationals in particular regularly ask why they are targeted.
Statistics compiled by EU member states, based on reports of stolen passports, showed a rise in petty crime, particularly in 2013. In 2011, there were 139 stolen passports, which inched up to 190 in 2012. The next year, however, citizens of member states reported 332. Statistics for 2014 were not available.
As well as criticising the city’s police, Kheng yesterday turned his attention to the courts, which he said regularly released suspects, even if there was enough evidence to convict.
“It is damn difficult to catch them if they are released after they are caught.… [Only] if there is no evidence can they be released,” he said.
But legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said that this is just “one of many problems” within the courts.
Conversely, he said, another issue is large amounts of pre-trial detention. “If anyone is charged, they’re always detained without reason, even when the charge is very low.”
Sam Oeun added that problems with the justice system existed across the country.
“We do not know clearly if the police are weak and the court is strong, or the court is weak and the police are strong.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY