$2,500 per Month From Bag-Snatch Booty

Speedy studied marketing up to his third year at a private university in Phnom Penh and now helps his mother with her cosmetics business.

He plays football every day at a local pagoda, and in an interview Monday, his eyes lit up as he discussed Chelsea FC, the British team he supports.

Until 2001, however, Speedy—a nickname bestowed upon him last year by researchers studying Phnom Penh’s gang culture—had another pastime.

He committed high-speed robberies from the back of a motorbike, and spent the proceeds on drugs, prostitutes and football gambling.

In a bar popular among expatriates, Speedy, 24, who wished to remain anonymous, used a box of cigarettes to represent his motorbike, and a lighter to symbolize his victims, as he demonstrated how, with a friend driving, they would pull up next to his target and he would yank away bags or jewelry, before speeding off. It was an operation he described with the pride of a skilled craftsman.

After the attacks, he recalled, “I felt happy. First you think ‘it was easy,’ then, ‘it was difficult, but I could still achieve it.’”

Speedy did the job fast, and on one occasion, his victim was pulled to the ground.

“First I felt so sorry,” looking back to see his victim on the ground, “but because of the happiness I could not think about that.”

“The most targeted are women and also baraings [foreigners],” he said. “If baraings come to Cambo­dia, most are careless—they don’t think Cambodia is like that.”

He usually committed his robberies around Psar Thmei, because of the area’s many wealthy people, businesses and alleyways to escape down. Speedy said he could make up to $2,500 a month that he would split with his partner who drove the motorcycle.

Fifty percent of what he earned would be spent on heroin, methamphetamine and ketamine, and the remainder on football gambling, and “bauk,” where a group of young men have sex with the same female, usually a prostitute and often against her will.

“I fell into everything at university,” Speedy recalled. “Fun with friends, six people…. We shared together—eating, drugs or bauk.”

Although he no longer takes part in high-speed bag snatching, six of his friends still do.

Speedy decided to abandon the practice, partly on the advice of his mother, and partly because of his fear of being caught by a mob. “Maybe one day I would be killed by the public,” he said.

On May 26, two weeks after Siv Khim, 56, was pulled from the back of a motorbike by robbers on Monireth Boulevard, her face was still bruised, and when she rolled up her trousers, her knees were still badly scrapped.

The primary school teacher was traveling back from her niece’s wedding, when two men on a Suzuki Viva motorbike grabbed her bag at a speed somewhere between 30 kph and 60kph.

“I rolled over three times in the street…. It is very cruel and very violent. Why do they do it?” Siv Khim said.

A general air of instability generated by the ongoing political deadlock and lack of firm government may be contributing to the rise in bag snatching, she said. “Before it happened much less—now it happens many times everyday.”

Siv Khim did not bother informing the police. “I looked everywhere, there were no police to complain to,” she said. And besides, she said, it is unlikely they would have been able to find the attackers anyway.

Mao Chamroeun, 25, a human resource officer at the EMT microfinance institution, was robbed two months ago and also did not bother to tell the police.

“The police can’t catch them,” she said. “The security, especially in Phnom Penh, is very messy right now,” she said.

Jane Martin, a theater consultant from Scotland, has been attacked by bag snatchers three times. Twice she was pulled off a motorbike during the attacks. “It always seems to be the same people—kids on expensive bikes that drive quickly,” she said, adding that after the attacks she was afraid to go out at night. “I could have been thrown under a car,” she said.

The British Foreign Office and the US State Department both warn visitors to Cambodia of the attacks. The US Embassy tells its nationals not to ride motorbike taxis.

“It happens everyday,” said Tong Soprach, a project adviser with Care Cambodia, who works closely with young men in Phnom Penh and links the trend to a burgeoning middle class in Cambodia. “It’s linked to society and the change from socialism to capitalism. Everything is fashionable so people need money,” he said.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of recreational facilities for young people, Tong Soprach said, who helps run a youth club—operated by Care Cambodia and the Gender and Development for Cambodia NGO.

While gambling outlets, karaoke parlors and brothels abound in the capital, “there are not many places for young people to do recreational things…. Young people now, where do they go? Where do they play?”

Some observers claim police take bribes from bag snatchers to allow them operate. Muong Khim, Phnom Penh deputy police chief , said Thursday he would arrest and jail any police officer who had collaborated with robbers, provided there was sufficient evidence.

Speedy shrugged and laughed last week: “The police never arrested me,” he said. Police can be paid to turn a blind eye.

“The police know, so we shared [what we robbed] with the police,” he said, adding that he paid them $50 a month to continue his activities uninterrupted. “We negotiated with the police.” he said.

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