Government Grapples With Weapons Epidemic

Before the government banned civilian ownership of small arms in 1999, the Toeuk Thla Market sold guns more or less openly. Now buyers must make appointments, but that can be easily arranged.

Since 1992, the government has tried repeatedly to control the ownership and use of small arms and explosives within the military, the police and the population.

But after 30 years of war—in a country where people don’t trust the police, the military or each other—how can the government get citizens to give up their guns?

The government has been struggling with that question for nearly a decade. In the past two years, at least 100,000 guns have been confiscated by authorities.

But there are hundreds of thousands of small arms still out there, and people are in no hurry to give them up.

“Who will protect us if we give away our weapons?” the villagers in one pilot disarmament program asked.

Experts say Cambodia cannot truly disarm until its people feel safe, and they will not feel safe until they know the forces charged with protecting them—the police, the military, and the courts—will uphold the law.

Three policemen in the park across from the National Assem­bly in Phnom Penh admitted that if they see robbers with guns, they will not interfere because they  themselves don’t carry weapons. The policemen, who did not want to be identified, said they see their job as keeping people off the grass and, maybe, intervening in the occasional fist fight if people ask them.

“[Police officers] don’t care,” said Meng Ly, a food cart vendor in Phnom Penh. If one goes to them for help, he said, “they just listen but don’t do anything.”

If they do something, said Sok Kim, a 15-year-old student, “we have to pay them.”



Ouk Kimlek, director of the Department of Police Administration at the Ministry of Interior, speaks with pride of the 100,000 guns confiscated since 1999.

Yet weapons of all kinds remain in circulation—and are used regularly to intimidate, avenge and protect, to settle business disputes and lover’s quarrels.

“It’s not just turn in your gun,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “Small arms are linked to small wars and to the degree of violence in each society.”

Guns, says Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot are more than just a threat to national security. “People get killed,” he said.

Government officials, international and national organizations say one essential step to disarmament is to teach police and military the appropriate use of weapons—that they are tools to protect and to serve the public, not to push them around. All don’t necessarily behave this way, however. For example, Sok Kim and Meng Ly said  in Phnom Penh, soldiers tend to be nicer to people than police officers.

A second step is for Cambodians to believe that weapons laws will be enforced equally, and that the rich and well-connected will be disarmed as impartially as the poor.

Despite the 1992 law establishing jail penalties for keeping, selling or making explosives, ammunition or weapons without authorization and a series of later decrees and declarations, Cambodia does not yet have a comprehensive law on the subject.

So last year, the European Union’s Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons project in Cambodia (EU/ASAC) brought in a lawyer as a consultant to help the ministries of Defense and Interior write a comprehensive draft law, said Henny J van der Graaf, special adviser to the group.

The draft Law on Arms, Explosives and Munitions consists of 29 articles divided into seven chapters that covers the control and oversight of arms and authorization to use them, explosives and munitions; import, export production and transport; rights of citizens; and penalties for breaking the law.

Yi Kosalvathanak of the human rights organization Adhoc, one of the NGOs asked to review the draft law, said it “should be linked to the penal code” and strictly enforced.

He also noted that the draft law “says that civilians should not carry weapons but it lists many exceptions and contradicts [the ban].”

For example, the draft law says elected officials can still carry weapons, “but it does not define elected officials,” said Heang Path, monitoring and information project officer for the Working Group for Weapons Reduction in Cambodia (WGWR), a coalition of local and international organizations concerned with weapons issues.

It also says village militias can carry weapons, a provision that was roundly criticized. “[Use] should be restricted, not extended to village militia,” said Heang Path.

Edgar Janz, WGWR’s secretariat adviser, said that protecting the public is the job of the military and the police, and should not be handled by civilians armed as militia.

The draft law has been reviewed by NGOs, Defense and Interior ministry officials and returned to EU/ASAC, which plans to discuss their comments with the government in the coming weeks and hold a roundtable in mid-March to hammer out the final version.

Officials at EU/ASAC also initiated the drafting of a code of conduct for military and police forces, spelling out that under Cambodian laws, their duty is to protect the public.

The code was developed with the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights (CIHR) during a seminar co-sponsored by EU/ASAC and the United Kingdom in December 2000.

For two days, 200 high-ranking military, military police and police officers discussed the code with law experts and representatives from civil society, said Kassie Neou, CIHR director.

Their goal was to come up with a text that would fit in a small handbook that soldiers and police officers can carry in their pockets. The draft has been sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen for his consideration.

When the code is approved, the next step will be training for security forces, Kassie Neou said. He believes that if they follow it, people will begin to trust them.

Adhoc’s Yi Kosalvathanak says a lack of trust is why people defy the government and refuse to turn in their weapons. “The most violence [is committed] by people who own their guns legally—not illegally,” he said. In rural areas “the people who misuse weapons are commune-level and district-level authorities.”

While criminals certainly misuse weapons, he said, police and military persist in carrying weapons while off-duty, despite the government’s directive barring the practice. And they should not receive preferential treatment when they break the rules, Yi Kosalvathanak said.

Sok Kim, who helps her mother at their sidewalk restaurant on weekends, said she sees soldiers and police officers carry guns all the time.

Chheth Bunloeur, public education project officer for WGWR, said police and military must also be accountable for how they use weapons when on the job. Security forces should get training as to how and when to use them, and be asked to justify their actions whenever they kill a person, he said.

Too many rank-and-file police officers and soldiers don’t understand that their duty is to protect the population, not push it around, critics say. Many are simply issued uniforms and weapons with little or no training, they say.

Training, critics say, also should clarify the respective duties of the military, military police and police, who sometimes compete with each other.


In the Snuol District of Kratie province, the EU/ASAC has developed a pilot Weapons in Exchange for Development project.

If villages agree to relinquish their weapons, they will get help of their choosing—a road to the market, a well, a school and so on. The only requirements are that the project be reasonable, and something that can be accomplished fairly quickly.

It was during discussions with the villagers that the people asked that poignant question: Who will protect us if we give away our weapons?

“This is a new theory, that a minimum level of security is the cost of development,” said Robin Poulton, EU/ASAC Weapons for Development adviser.

Building a relationship between security and development is part of the arduous process of building a lasting peace, he said. First, there is peace-keeping; next comes peace making and negotiations; and finally peace building.

“It’s recreating a state and recreating trust in the government,” Poulton said.

At the peace-building stage, a country rebuilds roads, schools, and its business sector. “But there cannot be sustainable development if there is no security,” said Marc Vanhemelryck, program officer for EU/ASAC

The pilot project involves having a police officer and his family move into each village as a means of public protection. The community does its share—maybe donating a piece of land, building a house, giving rice. In exchange, the policeman agrees to live in the village to protect its residents.

This also entails educating both people and security forces on the role they will play now that Cambodia is at the peace-building stage, Poulton said.

“We’re changing the way people perceive the army and police,” he said, “and we’re changing the way the army and police perceive themselves.”



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