Cambodians say they don’t want guns, they don’t want their neighbors to have guns, and they don’t want private security forces to have them either.
But they don’t feel safe, so they are apparently hanging on to their guns—and they’re not likely to give them up until they believe they can trust the police and the army to keep them safe.
That was one theory advanced Wednesday to explain why an estimated 435,000 guns still circulate throughout the country, despite a high-profile campaign to disarm the population.
In 1998, there were at least 500,000 guns in circulation, according to the Working Group for Weapons Reduction in Cambodia. Since then, about 66,000 guns have been confiscated with 36,000 of them destroyed.
Still, there are enough guns around to arm one in 12 adults—and one can still buy guns at the Tuk Thla market off Pochentong Road, though it’s harder than it once was, the group said.
“We know that many of the people who say they do not want a gun really have one,’’ Janet Ashby of the Working Group said at a seminar at the Ministry of Interior. She said people keep guns because they believe they are safer with them than without them.
The seminar was sponsored by the ministry, the Working Group, and the European Union. Organizers say it is the first such joint project, not just for Cambodia, but for the region.
Deputy Prime Minister and co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng opened the two-day gathering, which was attended by more than 200 police officers, officials and representatives of foreign and Cambodian NGOs.
Sar Kheng said the government, which announced its nationwide gun ban in April 1999, has made a good start on disarming the public, and plans to continue its efforts.
“We must draft a law on weapons control, but first we must go step by step,’’ he said. “This workshop is the first step. The second step will be to get people to voluntarily turn in their weapons.’’
Unless a deadline is set, he said, “it won’t happen for 10 or 20 years.’’ He proposed instead that the deadline be six months or a year from now, and urged conferees to come up with a plan.
The seminar was organized to give gun control advocates and the armed forces a chance to exchange ideas. The biggest area of disagreement seemed to be over who should have to disarm.
Hun Neng, governor of Svay Rieng province and the brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said taking guns away from all law-abiding people may simply leave them in the hands of criminals.
Police make a compelling case that they need their guns, even when off-duty, for personal security, he said, while wealthy people who are the targets of robbers and kidnappers also have legitimate concerns.
Plus, he said, you can’t just go door-to-door confiscating guns without provoking an uproar over human rights violations. “You must have the cooperation of the civil society,’’ he said.
But people must believe the law will be enforced even-handedly if they are to cooperate, organizers said. Neb Sinthay of the Working Group said one survey showed people believe “weapons were collected only from the innocent, ordinary, law-abiding people, not from the robbers and bandits and not from wealthy, powerful and high-ranking individuals, their bodyguards or others who benefit from such connections.’’
On the other hand, he said, the weapon confiscation program is extremely popular, which eight out of 10 Cambodians surveyed saying they support it. A survey of more than 1,000 people last October elicited a number of positive points, including:
- More than half of those questioned said that while gunfire had once been heard nightly, that is no longer the case.
- Soldiers and police no longer carry guns when they are off-duty, and village militias have been disarmed.
- Guns are not carried casually or openly anymore.
The surveys also found some worrisome trends, including young people who say they want to carry guns to protect themselves from gangs and youths who consider guns glamorous.
Organizers say a public education campaign, combined with a serious, continued effort to confiscate illegal weapons, will eventually convince the public that Cambodia is truly becoming safer. The seminar, which continues today, will assess what has been learned so far, how laws should be constructed and applied, and how to improve awareness.