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US adds its voice to concerns over Cambodia’s mounting crime rate

US adds its voice to concerns over Cambodia’s mounting crime rate

This story first appeared in The Edge Review in the April 10 issue

By LUKE HUNT / Phnom Penh

ASIAWATCH — A surging crime rate has been a hot topic in Phnom Penh and a major headache within the business community for more than a year, despite a lack of official data to support the ample anecdotal evidence, often served-up as daily headlines.

The capital’s atrociously paid police – who make about two-thirds of the US$128-a-month minimum wage – rarely collate figures and any acknowledgment from the government that crime is a problem has been blamed on political protests by the opposition forcing re-deployment of police.

Those protests faded more than a year ago but the crime reports continued. Now the United States has added its diplomatic weight to concerns about the crime wave and put Cambodia on the “critical” list in a report detailing dangers US embassy staffers might be confronted by in-country.

Violent crimes, especially armed robberies, continued to occur, while the chances of being a victim increase dramatically at night, daytime robberies are also very common,” The Cambodia 2015 Crime and Safety Report found. “The frequency of armed robberies involving weapons continues at high levels.”

A year ago, the US embassy warned there were no crime free zones in Cambodia but it refrained from listing the country as critical despite repeated attacks, some violent, others imaginative and many in the tourist towns of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.

Thieves have been caught masquerading as telephone company employees to gain access to houses where they strip homes of their copper wire.

An employee of the Australian Embassy was shot three times and barely survived by two men on motorbikes as he drove through Phnom Penh.

Canadian journalist Dave Walker went missing from his guest house in Siem Reap in mid-February, his badly decomposed body was found about 10 weeks later near the temple ruins of Angkor Wat amid widespread speculation that he may have have been killed.

The US report also noted the murder of Dutch UN consultant Daphna Beerdsen, 31, and her baby daughter in Phnom Penh during an attempted robbery a year ago. Chea Phin was sentenced to 13-years in jail. He told the court he had tried to steal a bicycle.

Her death was not the first. Two years ago a French woman was raped and murdered near Kampot and a Japanese businessmen was shot and killed while resisting a robbery.

Cambodian police also blamed the murder of four French children on their father which they said was a murder-suicide but could not explain how the head of the decapitated dad was found inside a suitcase in the boot of their family car at the bottom of a pond. A local villager was later charged.

High unemployment, wealth disparities, a post-war baby boom leading to dramatic a increase in the population of the capital and major provincial towns and widespread poverty amid a government notorious for its corruption have all been cited by civil society groups for the rising crime rate.

Criminal activity remained high in 2014, with an increase in both the level of violence and the frequency of incidents involving US Embassy personnel,” the US report said.

Endemic corruption within the Cambodian National Police and the judicial system compounds issues of safety and security within the country.

Public perception regarding the responsiveness and abilities of the Cambodian National Police and justice system often leads to civilian vigilante-style justice, particularly if the thief is caught by in the act or shortly after the incident by neighbors or vendors in the vicinity of the theft.”

It added a “foreign diplomat had his smart phone stolen after being punched in the mouth. The perpetrator used brass knuckles and approached the victim as he was stopped on the side of the road.”

Theft of timber and drug trafficking, bag and smart phone snatching are reported daily while the US report added that random gunfire and road rage shootouts were frequent and often involved youth gangs who operated unimpeded across the capital.

Tourists are often targeted, a sensitive issue in a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry.

An American construction worker survived a shot to the groin at close range after his wife refused to hand over her purse. A Japanese tourist also survived after being shot, while resisting an attempt to steal her handbag.

Gang attacks have been particularly prevalent along the southern coastline near Sihanoukville, however, the police seem to be in denial.

Late last month a draft plan designed to protect foreign nationals and investors was sent to 27 foreign embassies in Phnom Penh with authorities noting investment and tourism were important to Cambodia’s economy. No details have been released.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith insisted then that overall crime had declined while petty theft such as pickpocketing and bag snatching “has increased a little bit”.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng was unconvinced and has since claimed that the provincial authorities were sleeping on the job.

From overseas, how do they see Cambodia?” he asked during a recent conference on combatting drug trafficking. “We promote Cambodia as the kingdom of wonder, but how is it if they come and get robbed or they come and get injured?”