Musings by Annette Martin
“You Americans love violence,” my Cambodian friend recently told me. A review of the action flicks, horror films, and TV crime dramas produced by U.S. studios would indeed suggest that Americans love violence. I always found my partner-in-crime’s top Netflix genre recommendation hysterical: Critically-acclaimed Violent Cerebral Foreign Thrillers. (He’s adamantly not American, but the Turks weren’t exactly known for their pacifism, were they?)
Compared with the Cambodian preference for sappy love stories (mostly dubbed Korean and Chinese films), I suppose Americans do prefer their entertainment programming with a side of violence. Perhaps we can trace this fascination to our country’s revolutionary beginnings and shoot ‘em up wild west roots.
My British colleague and my French tutor, both very educated and well-traveled guys mind you, have this vision of the U.S. as a dodgy, dangerous place. They have no desire to visit the country, anticipating experiences straight from The Wire. I can’t say I blame them; the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate and largest prison population in the world!
You can tell a lot about a country by its crime. According to the U.S. Department of State, “Cambodia has a high crime rate, including street crime. Military weapons and explosives are readily available to criminals despite authorities’ efforts to collect and destroy such weapons. Armed robberies occur frequently, and foreign residents and visitors are among the victims. Armed burglaries are also a concern.”
Dejected victims post snatch-and-grab assault
Printing the latest crime statistics last week, The Cambodia Daily reported on the “enormous increase in the prison population recently,” with prisons at 171% capacity. Of the 15,404 inmates at 2011 end, robbers (23%), murderers (9%), and rapists (8%) were the most common of the lot. Check out the living conditions they enjoy:
Photo courtesy of Simon Oliver
States in the U.S. spend on average $29,000 per year incarcerating one inmate. Can you imagine what just $29,000 would do for this facility?
I would argue that Cambodians are also fascinated by violence (even though it’s less prominent in their film and TV dramas). Coverage of petty crime is a media favorite. According to a Cambodge Soir journalist, “The violent culture in Cambodia is still there, a result of the Khmer regime. Papers publish [crime reports] because there are still many people who want to see these things.” An Indochina Research media consumption survey found that Cambodians prefer news articles on homicides and crimes to political news articles (74% vs 21% consumption).
The criminal justice system, and its media coverage, are significantly slanted. While low life smugglers, murderers, traffickers, and the like are prominently punished and humiliated, the powerful and political elite are untouchable. The Jack Abramoffs, Gary Jacksons, Bernie Madoffs, and Eliot Spitzers of Cambodia enjoy an unlimited supply of Get Out of Jail Free cards.
A case in point is the Police Blotter (aka Potty Blotter), which translates and reprints news from Khmer-language (state controlled) papers. The petty thefts, drunken brawls (with swords and stones!), cheatings, and murders are an interesting read for sure. See below my blog post for an assortment of entries from the last month. It’s clear, though, that criminal activity covered by the Khmer press is skewed.
While the Khmer newspapers avoid politically sensitive topics, the two independent English language newspapers – The Cambodia Daily (tagline: “All the News Without Fear or Favor”) and The Phnom Penh Post (tagline: “Successful People Read The Post”) – are bolder in their coverage.
Both papers recently ran the following story highlighting such scandalous abuse of power that its absence from the Khmer press is telling. During a recent garment factory protest, the local city governor fired his gun, wounding three female protestors. According to the prosecutor assigned to the case, the governor claimed that he “came to the demonstration to negotiate and he shot into the air.” Following a private consultation, the prosecutor stripped the brazen shooter of his governorship title but charged him with no crime. Despite calls for judicial action by human rights organizations, the women he injured will likely see no justice served for his crime. Political interference trumps again and the governor is roaming free as can be. And the majority of Cambodians who read the news are none the wiser.
Although this next story did hit Khmer newspapers, it’s another great example of the defunct political justice system. Originally sentenced to 17 years in jail, a Russian businessman convicted with buying sex from and abusing 17 girls between ages 6 and 13 was recently given a royal pardon and set free. At the government’s request, King Norodom Sihamoni granted the pedophile amnesty. I’m curious to know the price of that payoff.
With the press biased and law so obviously dirty, it follows that order would be too. For example, the Phnom Penh police force places monthly bids on different beats, judged by their potential for raking in fines (aka bribes). The more money advanced, the better beat assigned. What boils my blood is not that the police force is corrupt. How can you blame low-level police officers when their paltry government salary barely supports survival?
Rather, their practices are reprehensible because of who they victimize: the poor. The police are quick to harass moto drivers or impoverished travelers crammed into share taxis. They turn a blind eye to the drivers of the shiny Hummers and Lexus and Range Rover SUVs that obey no rule of law but their own. Admittedly, it’s more efficient to wield power against those with no rights and no voice.
In a recent meeting with a Ministry official, I was posed a hypothetical question about crime and corruption in Cambodia: “Who is at fault when a cleaner steals from her boss?” The answer: The boss of course. She shouldn’t have tempted the once pure-at-heart cleaner by leaving valuable items unlocked and easy for the taking. The official then hit his point home: “Who is at fault when the government skims from donor aid packages?” The answer: The donors, because they enable corruption.
Although the U.S. criminal justice system is not beyond reproach, at least the constitutional amendments on which the country was founded – freedom of speech, assembly, and press – will not as easily allow injustice to run rampant. Determining how to give voice to the powerless here is key to preventing future abuse of power. Anyone interested in collaborating on a Kony 2012-esque campaign?
Police Blotter, Translated and Reprinted by The Phnom Penh Post
Wedding scuffle leads to arrest of guest
A 29-year-old man was arrested for allegedly attacking another man at a wedding party in Kampot province’s Chumkiri district on Tuesday. Police said the suspect had been angered when the victim, 28, accused him of taking his water bottle. The two argued, and the suspect assaulted the victim with a chair from the wedding, causing him to bleed heavily. The suspect escaped but police later arrested him at his house.
Water buffalo thieves captured by authorities
Two men in their mid-40s were jailed on Saturday after they were found in possession of four stolen buffalo in Kratie province’s Prek Prasop district. A villager in the area filed a complaint on Thursday, in which he told police four of his buffalo had gone missing. Police found the suspects concealing the buffalo in the forest. Police said both suspects, who have allegedly stolen buffalo in the past, had confessed to the theft. The buffalo were returned to their rightful owner.
Surveillance video nabs security guard thieves
Two factory security guards, both 32 years old, were caught on surveillance camera stealing about 120 litres of diesel from their work place on Wednesday night in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. Police arrested the suspects, who admitted the allegations and said that they resold the diesel for more than US$100.
Wife stoned, injured by husband’s friend
A woman, 30, was seriously injured after her husband’s drinking partner threw rocks at her at a party in Kampong Chhnang town on Sunday. Police said the woman had gone to call her husband home from a party. His drinking companion became angry, as he wanted the woman’s husband to stay. He then threw rocks at her. The victim said her husband neglected his family and drank almost every day with his friend.
Man hacked after scuffle at a party
A 21-year-old man was arrested on Tuesday night after he was accused of hacking a teenager at a dance party in Kampong Thom’s Santuk district. Police said two groups of men participated in a Buddhist ceremony and danced together at the end of the party. They argued after a member of one group accidentally stepped on the foot of a man from another group. The suspect allegedly hacked and injured the victim in the back and was attempting to flee, but police arrested him while his friends escaped. The victim has been hospitalised.
Rival gangs fight with swords, rocks on motos
Police arrested four students from two high schools in the capital for allegedly fighting with swords and rocks on Saturday. Police said the students were members of two large rival groups, which had faced off on motorcycles and attacked each other. Police said they did not know the reason for the clash and have detained the four for questioning.
Mother-to-be allegedly steals to pay for care
A pregnant woman, 27, was charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with burglary on Friday and placed under provisional detention. Police said the woman lifted US$45 off another woman at Boeung Keng Kang market in the capital’s Chamkarmon district. When the victim discovered the theft and shouted for help, a security guard arrested the suspect. Police added that the suspect admitted to the accusation, explaining she did not have enough money to give birth at a hospital.
Two arrested after sword and stick fight
Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged two men with causing violence intentionally, and placed them under provisional detention on Friday for fighting. Police said one of the men, a street noodle-vendor, 23, had argued with a 27-year-old construction worker on March 4. The construction worker then bashed the noodle vendor on his head with a wooden stick. The noodle vendor ran to his relative’s home, where he got hold of a sword and continued fighting the construction worker.