Flying Tigers Grounded as Powerful Personalities Disagree

On a dusty road in Phnom Penh’s Don Penh district, 12 of the police’s fastest motorcycles are lined up in two neat rows. But they are not going anywhere: A thick wire winds through the bikes’ wheels and locks them together, on the order of the municipality’s influential deputy governor.

As many as 60 motorcycles in four districts around the city are currently under lock and key, and the specially trained forces that ride them, the Flying Tigers, are in limbo.

Chea Sophara, Phnom Penh’s first deputy governor, and Hok Lundy, director-general of the National Police, have been at odds over the 2-year-old elite team for several weeks now. Both are influential CPP central committee members.

Two weeks ago, Chea Sophara blamed members of the squad for a wave of crime against foreigners; Hok Lundy firmly denied the charges.

The two-week stalemate has left the Flying Tigers grounded but on call for the Interior Ministry in case of emergency. So far, there have been no calls.

“On stand-by,” said one of a group of Flying Tigers assigned to Chamkar Mon district who were playing cards and volleyball Wednesday. “Every day, stand- by,” said another.

And if they were called to an emergency, the Flying Tigers would have to go to the scene on their own motorcycles and out of uniform. The Tigers said they are still being paid their salary of 45,000 riel ($12.50) a month.

But the Flying Tigers may be allowed back on the streets next week to help stop pre-Khmer New Year crime, Interior Ministry officials said Wednesday.

Police officials in the Interior Ministry decided Wednesday to dismiss a proposal by Chea Sophara to remove the elite crime-fighting squad from municipal police stations and return them to the Ministry of Interior.

“Since Chea Sophara stopped the Flying Tigers, crime in the city has been increasing exponentially, especially kidnapping,” Hok Lundy said Wednesday.

Deputy Director of National Police Yeng Marady said the Flying Tigers units “will be back at the beginning of April.”

“Chea Sophara does not have jurisdiction over the Flying Tigers,” he said.

Currently, four Flying Tiger units of ten members each stay in Chamkar Mon, Prampi Makara, Tuol Kok and Don Penh districts. Twenty other Flying Tigers are based at the Interior Ministry.

The Flying Tigers were created by the co-ministers of the Interior in early 1996 in response to a crime wave against foreigners, Yeng Marady said.

Policemen were selected and specially trained with French assistance for four months on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, he said.

Yeng Marady blamed a recent surge of kidnappings and gang violence on the grounding of the Flying Tigers. Last week, there were two kidnappings reported to Western security sources.

Chea Sophara said Thursday he had not heard of the Interior Ministry’s decision, but agreed to work with them to find a solution. “I don’t want to fight with Hok Lundy,” he said, “I want to negotiate peacefully with him directly and find a smooth solution.”

But for now, the Flying Tigers wait. “It’s up to Hok Lundy and Chea Sophara to talk,” the chief of the Chamkar Mon Flying Tigers said. “Until then, we just go out on our own bikes and patrol to take care of emergencies—we wait.”

(Additional reporting by Heng Sinith)

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