A Long, Sad, Litany of Impunity

Assassinations, acid attacks and brazen robberies—The common theme of the Daily’s coverage of crime in Cambodia has been one of perpetrators going unpunished

In June 1994 in Phnom Penh, two men armed with handguns and Chinese-made mini-hand grenades participated in an event that would secure a place in Cambodia’s colorful, albeit tragic, modern crime history books.

Though brief and unsuccessful, it was Cambodia’s first bank robbery.

One of those two early bank robbers—the one carrying a bag containing $400,000—was shot dead by a bank security guard while fleeing. The other escaped empty-handed on a motorcycle.

At the time, it may not have been thought of as monumental or even shocking. Cambodia was rebuilding and at the same time trying to civilianize military remnants left over from decades of conflict.

The Phnom Penh headquarters of the Khmer Rouge, whom police at the time suspected were behind the botched bank heist, had been shut down by the government three days before and brutally violent occurrences were common throughout the country.

As the country developed, of course, so did some of its criminals, such as the three men that attempted to make off with over $600,000 in 2008 by fraudulently transferring money from a bank in the US to one in Phnom Penh.

Unfortunately, the majority of crimes reported on by The Cambo­dia Daily over the past 15 years haven’t shared the sophistication of that botched bank job. More often than not, misdeeds are carried out with the stuff of horror films.

It is evident looking through the Daily archives since 1993 that previous editors and reporters made efforts to present the crimes in a conservative manner, but the gruesome, and often bizarre nature of the deeds push through those lines of type.

Perhaps more disturbing than the crimes themselves, is the fact that many of the country’s major crimes have gone unpunished or, as with the assassination of Free Trade Union President Chea Vi­chea, have been perceived as having gone unpunished.

For many, the details surrounding Chea Vichea’s murder embody all that is wrong with how authorities tackle crime.

The prominent union leader was sitting at a Phnom Penh newsstand on the morning of Jan 22, 2004, reading a copy of The Cambodia Daily, when two men on a motorcycle pulled up outside. The passenger, dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt, dismounted and walked to­ward Chea Vichea. He stood be­side the union chief for a few mo­ments, then fired three shots at point-blank range, hitting Chea Vi­chea in the head, the chest and his left arm, killing him immediately.

His death shook the nation and thousands took to the streets of the capital to mourn his passing.

The assassination was immediately condemned by the nation and the international community, which labeled Chea Vichea’s death as politically motivated. The controversy surrounding the killing was elevated, perhaps even eclipsed, by the subsequent baffling arrests of two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were presented to the public by police—wearing black hoods for effect—as Chea Vichea’s killers.

Shortly after his arrest, and after first pleading his innocence, suspect Born Samnang told reporters he was offered $5,000 to murder Chea Vichea. Not long after that, Born Samnang’s girlfriend Vieng Thi Hong and her mother gave Cambodia Daily reporters a different account, saying Born Samnang had been with them in Prey Veng province the day of Chea Vichea’s death. Dozens of villagers corroborated their story.

Eyewitness Var Sothy, the own­er of the newsstand where the union leader was shot, maintains to this day that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun did not kill Chea Vichea. She saw the killers, and has since fled for asylum overseas. Sin­isterly, in the months after the kill­ing, she was, allegedly, visited by the man who actually shot the uni­on chief. He went back to the newsstand and bought a newspaper, and made his presence very known to Var Sothy.

In August 2005, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun guil­ty of killing Chea Vichea, and in Ap­ril 2007, the Appeal Court upheld the verdict. The German Embassy called the Appeal Court’s decision “disappointing,” and UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia Yash Ghai issued a statement saying that there was no credible evidence linking the pair to the killing.

Despite pleadings from the local and international community, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun re­main in prison, and the controversy surrounding their incarceration and the death of Chea Vichea is un­likely to disappear anytime soon.

Chea Vichea was of course not the only high-profile killing the country has witnessed over the past 15 years and, although rarely caught, the profiles of the assailants tend to be similar: Two men with one gun, on a motorcycle shooting their victims down in broad daylight. The modus operandi hasn’t changed, as seen in the killing last month of an opposition newspaper man and his son.

On July 6, 1999, 34-year-old Pi­seth Pilika, considered Cam­bodia’s most famous actress and classical Khmer dancer, was shot while shopping for a bicycle with her 8-year-old niece near Phnom Penh’s Phsar O’Russei. The gunman calmly approached the starlet and es­caped on the back of a motorcycle driven by an accomplice after shooting her and her niece.

Piseth Pilika died several days later at Calmette Hospital, and her niece was left with a bullet buried in the upper portion of her back.

The killing had an unsettling ef­fect on the nation, as allegations emerged that the wife of a high-ranking official ordered the hit in re­venge for the actress’ affair with her husband.

Almost 20 relatives of the slain actress were given asylum in France, and though the crime amounted to one of the most high-profile killings in the country’s modern history, no suspects have ever been identified or arrested for this cold-blooded slaying.

In April 2003, Phnom Penh Mu­nicipal Court Judge Sok Setha­mony was driving down Sihanouk Boulevard when one of two men on a motorcycle pulled out a K-59 pistol and shot him four times. The killers fled the scene, and despite possibly hundreds of people seeing the motorcycle pull up beside the judge’s Mitsubishi Pajero, they were never caught.

The list goes on and on—a sad, long litany of impunity.

One of the most disturbing and popular forms of violence is that of the acid attack.

Primarily used by slighted lovers as a form of long-lasting revenge, acid attacks have been a gruesome staple of Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge history.

The most prominent incident is the attack on karaoke video actress Tat Marina in December 1999.

According to police, witnesses and family members, the actress was yanked to the ground while eating rice soup with her 3-year-old niece near the Olympic Market in Phnom Penh. She was then kicked and kneed in the chest repeatedly until she passed out. While unconscious, she was doused with more than a liter of acid. The attack al­most killed Tat Marina, who suffered horrific injuries to her head, face and body.

Soon after the attack, the district police chief identified the wife of a high-ranking official. A warrant was issued that same month, but to this day, no one has ever been brought to justice.

The damage done by acid at­tacks are ghastly and made more so by the fact that the intention of those who use this method is not to kill, but to disfigure.

According to local rights group Licadho, there have been 127 acid attacks in Cambodia since 1999. What’s worse, is that there is no indication that such attacks are on the decline.

Acid attacks are not confined to the weak and powerless.

On the morning of July 13, 2008, Ngor Srun, a CPP secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, was standing outside a tire shop in Prampi Makara district in Phnom Penh when unidentified assailants attacked him with acid. No complaint was filed by Ngor Srun to police, who have labeled the case as a “personal matter.”

Pedophiles, both foreign and Cambodian, have taken advantage of the young and innocent for years, causing serious damage to the country’s reputation. Rape of children—many of such cases involving the murder of young victims—has been another horrific staple, which Daily reporters have written about in the hope that shining a light on such crimes will in­form and maybe, one day, inspire authorities and others into taking serious action.

These crimes, along with those of other violent criminals, occur with such frequency that they often receive but few words when reported: grenades casually hurled into rural dance parties, a groom shot at his wedding because a guest didn’t get pepper passed to him quickly enough, or a man attempting to cut out the fetus from his pregnant girlfriend to make a magic amulet, just to name a scant few.

The “Briefs” section of the Daily has contained short summaries of countless stories that should really demand pages and weeks of coverage, analysis and national soul-searching.

Like most countries, Cambodia has also had its fair share of problems dealing with illegal drugs over the past 15 years.

Formerly thought of as a major global producer of marijuana, it has more recently been described as a transit point for drug traffickers.

Not all the news is “bad news,” however.

Over the past 15 years, the government has passed a series of laws in its effort to battle crime, in­cluding a series of weapon bans and the domestic violence law in 2005. There are definitely fewer weapons in circulation compared to the 1990s, when the sound of gunfire was so common that it could have been the city’s

soundtrack.

The government also pushed through several important laws in 2007 with the passing of the anti-money laundering law, the anti-human trafficking law, the road traffic law and the law on criminal procedures.

However, whether or not these laws are enforced by police and the oft-criticized courts remains to be seen, and that may be the most important story regarding crime for the next 15 years of Daily coverage.

 

Perhaps more disturbing than the crimes themselves, is the fact that many of the country’s major crimes have gone unpunished or, as with the assassination of Chea Vichea, have been perceived as having gone unpunished.

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