Prime Minister Hun Sen returned from Vietnam Wednesday greeted not only by officials and well-wishers, but also by a small army of police, military police and members of his elite personal bodyguard unit.
But the premier and other high-ranking officials aren’t the only ones who regularly have security on hand during their public appearances.
Bodyguards, drivers, police officers and even military police can regularly be seen lounging outside gold and currency exchange shops, guarding private weddings, even accompanying their clients to restaurants, to bars and on trips to the shopping mall.
“VIPs,” joked Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, of the people who employ professional personal protection in peacetime Cambodia. “Very insecure people,” she added.
According to Chea Vannath, the purpose of having an imposing and sometimes well-armed entourage is threefold.
Some people actually need the protection, others are looking to show off their wealth and status, and still others are simply seeking to create work for less fortunate relatives. Often it is a combination of all of the above.
“You are too rich. You are working in a controversial situation where you might have enemies,” she said. “But for some it’s just to create jobs for their relatives, their friends.”
Another reason is that people don’t trust the police.
“The country cannot count on its own institutions, the police force, to provide protection,” she claimed. “So they have to take matters into their own hands.”
Several private Phnom Penh security firms said business has been brisk of late, even though private guards—unlike police and military police—are not allowed to carry firearms, only truncheons and handcuffs.
“I cannot recruit security guards fast enough,” said Im Vuthy, assistant to the chairman of VIP Security Service (Cambodia) Co. “If I recruit them today, I send them on duty tomorrow.”
Christian Berger, managing director of MPA Security Services, also said business has been steadily increasing.
“It’s a Third World country with a high crime rate. I still don’t think it’s safe to go out in Phnom Penh at night,” he said. “Just like any Third World country, poverty breeds desperation and crime.”
But private security guards are hardly the only hired protection in town.
Armed police and military police are often seen guarding senior government officials, wealthy “Oknhas” and even private weddings and parties.
Military police, for example, guard the weddings of military police officials, while police guard those of police officials, several sources said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said government forces are generally reserved for government officials but that exceptions can be made at the government’s discretion.
“Anybody can request [security], are you feeling in danger?” he asked jokingly. “You can request.”
“Officially no, unofficially yes,” he said when asked whether military or police personnel received payment for rendering their services to private groups or individuals.
“The host of the wedding can invite them for food,” he said. “That is normal.”
Deputy National Military Police Commander Vong Phisen said military police were available to anybody who needed them.
“It is up to the wedding host,” he said, when asked how forces might be obtained to protect the bridal couple from angry former lovers. “If they make a request, we have the duty to protect the safety and security of the people.”
Sok Phal, deputy national police commissioner, said his forces were available to high-ranking government officials and businessmen but not to ordinary people, who he said should instead employ unarmed private security guards.
“If simple people or private companies ask for bodyguards with guns, I think that is not possible,” he said.
But he said municipal police could sometimes be used to guard private weddings and could at times accept payment for their services.
“If the host sentimentally provides them some, they will accept,” he explained. “But we don’t have any policy to accept.”
Most security officials interviewed agreed that there are far fewer bodyguards around town now than in the mid- and late 1990s, when high-level political violence still plagued the country, and when officials were sometimes accused of blocking traffic with their security entourages.
“Most of the time I walk around on my own,” Vong Phisen said. “We don’t need bodyguards anymore because we are at peace.”
(Additional reporting by Chhim Sopheark)