Three truckloads of military police and motorcycle-riding Flying Tiger police from Don Penh district stopped early morning traffic Wednesday on Street 63, searching for illegal weapons.
Police interviewed commuters, looked through car windows and frisked people for unregistered guns.
The checkpoint was one of many around the capital, as a new controversial campaign to crack down on crime and “anarchic” elements got under way.
“It’s a good first step,” declared General Ouk Kim Leng, director of the weapons registry at the Interior Ministry.
Before it’s over, police and local officials plan to implement a weapons “buy-back” program and go door to door to take a “census” of illegal weapons. In announcing the crackdown Sunday, Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara said that he hoped to reduce the number of illegal weapons and explosives in the capital by 70 percent.
Security officials, lawyers and human rights workers, however, are questioning the methods and prospects of such a mammoth undertaking. A human rights official stressed earlier this week, for example, that no house should be searched without a court order.
In Phnom Penh there are more than 10,000 weapons registered to civilian and police forces. But no one is sure about the number of unregistered weapons.
The city has tried to crack down on crime before, and a law passed in 1992 stipulates penalties of one to five years in jail for “having, buying, selling, renting, lending, borrowing, keeping or producing explosives, ammunition or weapons without authorization.”
But the law is rarely implemented, according to a recently released study by a group of NGOs, and crimes by armed individuals remain commonplace.
Since Oct 1, at least 15 foreigners have been robbed or assaulted at gunpoint, according to police, and last week alone, police reported six kidnappings of Cambodian and Cambodian-Chinese businessmen.
“It’s very difficult to control illegal weapons in Cambodia because they have become such a part of the culture,” acknowledged Ouk Kim Leng.
For example, some Cambodians shoot guns into the air to call on gods when it rains, when it doesn’t rain and when people in their family are sick.
The NGO study published in July on the use of guns among civilians in Cambodia also found that many Cambodians say they keep guns to protect themselves against criminals.
Until the door-to-door census starts, the municipality is offering a “buy-back” plan of all unregistered weapons in good and working order. Such plans are common in many countries.
Officials will pay 40,000 riel ($10) for AK-47s and long weapons and 50,000 riel ($12.50) for short guns or pistols, Chea Sophara said.
The guns will all be warehoused in the Ministry of Defense because they have the best facilities to contain and store the weapons safely, Chea Sophara said.
The most controversial part of the crackdown is a plan to go door to door beginning Nov 1 and ask residents and businesses if they have unregistered weapons. All illegal weapons found will be seized and people hiding weapons will be fined and possibly arrested, Chea Sophara said.
Legal experts and human rights workers have raised questions about how the census will be conducted, warning that all police searches must be accompanied with a search warrant from the court. “The searches have to be in accordance with the law,” a human rights official said earlier this week.
Chea Sophara has said previously that police will only enter and search houses if they have good evidence someone is hiding illegal weapons. He said that local commune officials, district leaders and police will conduct the census.
The municipality’s plan to encourage citizens to register guns and give up illegal unregistered ones is enormous, experts said.
One main reason so few people register is the cost, said John Svensson, manager of Global Safety, a security company in Phnom Penh. It costs between $30 to $60 to register a weapon in Cambodia, security experts said—almost the same amount it costs to purchase an AK-47 rifle from weapons vendors in Tuk Thla market in Phnom Penh.
“So you can imagine how many Cambodians have the money to register a gun which they see as their form of security,” John Svensson said.
A former military analyst calculates that there are at least half a million rifles and handguns in Cambodia, or one for every five male adults. About half of these weapons are in the hands of security and police forces, and the rest among the civilian population, Colonel David Mead, the former Australian defense attache, wrote in an article for AsiaWeek.
Addressing the issue of poor pay for military and police forces is an essential part of any effort to restore law and order in Cambodia, Mead writes. Soldiers who make between $12 to $15 a month can augment their income by selling their weapons in public markets or using their weapons during tough economic times for crime, Mead writes.
The municipality’s plan does not address police or military demobilization.
Experts also expressed mixed feelings about what sort of impact the municipality’s plan will have on a recent surge in crime.
“A potential robber or kidnapper will perhaps think twice if they see checkpoints in the town,” said Robert Scott, director of Paladin Resources Ltd, a private security firm. ”But, [kidnappings] will continue to happen until these people go to the police and the people and power and make them do something.”
The crackdown was prompted in part by a letter US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn had written about a recent surge of crime against foreigners, Chea Sophara said.
He also said that the crackdown on illegal weapons is an effort to prevent “activists” from sneaking into Phnom Penh from northwestern Cambodia.
But even while the task is daunting, the municipality already is beginning to get some good press for its efforts.
On Wednesday, the Khmer-language daily Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) showed pictures of alleged robbers and teen-age gangsters posing with 9mm pistols that police said they had seized on Tuesday.