Doeun Saman, 18, remembers the time in August when he came home after a day spent hanging around the neighborhood and received a summons asking him to appear at the police headquarters of Chroy Changva commune.
As a member of a youth gang, he immediately became suspicious, wondering if the police were planning to question or arrest him for some sort of crime. He seriously considered ignoring the summons, laying low and seeing what would happen next.
But the next day, he heard that some of his fellow gang members were also being called in. The gang leaders decided they would all appear at the police station together.
They were in for a surprise. Far from arresting them, the Russei Keo district officials who met them that morning offered them government jobs.
The young men were told that they could get jobs as guards at city parks if they promised to behave themselves and abandon their delinquent activities. Filled with a rush of pride that the authorities would entrust them with such responsibility, the gang members signed the agreement on the spot.
Now Doeun Saman guards the public park in front of the Royal Palace. Although he is an 11th-grade student at Chroy Changva High School, he looks nothing like a schoolboy in his police guard’s uniform, a baton on his hip and a whistle at his lips to stop pedestrians from stepping on the manicured grass.
In a pilot initiative, the Phnom Penh municipality has employed 14 former Chroy Changva gangsters in this way. Most are teen-age boys who previously made trouble at school or in public places.
“[These boys] were well-known gangsters,” Chroy Changva villager Ting Ya, 48, said. “It is amazing that they became police officers.”
City Governor Chea Sophara says employing the gangsters both keeps parks neat and gets the teen-agers off the streets, preventing them from causing more social problems.
“They usually loot construction equipment or whatever else is there,” the governor said of the gangsters’ normal activities. “If there’s nothing to loot, they fight each other, and we can’t stop them. Now they can’t do that anymore because they have jobs and responsibility.”
The municipality is initially giving them a monthly salary of 90,000 riel (about $23) plus food, two uniforms and traditional clothing to wear for the Pchum Ben festival early next month.
There is no guarantee they will ever become full-time civil servants, but the opportunity could help them rehabilitate themselves and their reputations, giving them a chance at a better future, Chea Sophara said.
“They probably won’t become government officials,” he said. “But they can work there as long as they want and the city will keep feeding them.”
Earlier this week, Chroy Changva Park chief groundskeeper Phal Pharith ordered the park’s ex-gangster guards to stand in line, army style.
“You are not like before—you are officials!” he shouted. “You are here to guard the lawn and stop people walking on it!”
“Yes, we are!” the group shouted in response. “We understand!”
One of the former gangsters said the group had been trained by commune police for more than two weeks, focusing on police rules of conduct, penal code and traffic law.
Officials said the plan is so popular that other gang members have come to the office asking for employment. They were turned down, since the number of jobs is currently limited by the city.
Chea Sophara said he would consider making more jobs for gang members because of the program’s apparent success in enabling troublesome youths to reintegrate with society and establish productive lives.