Houn Hei keeps a long wooden club propped against the wall of his central Phnom Penh home—a relic of a time in the mid-1980s when patrols of men armed with similar weapons walked the streets keeping order.
Now Houn Hei, chief of Tom Nop Teek neighborhood, is again maintaining the peace on the few narrow streets that fall under his watch in Chamkarmon district. The club stays where it is, unused, but within easy reach.
For three months the government has been quietly organizing commune, village and neighborhood-level security units—small groups of men who take turns each night acting as lookouts to assist police, according to top Interior Ministry officials.
Some government officials say the demobilization of some area militia groups has begun, leaving those neighborhoods vulnerable to bandits. In many parts of the country, militias have acted as de facto police for years.
“We must have some organization to replace the militia,” said You Hockry, co-minister of the Ministry of Interior, which directed district and commune authorities to begin organizing security details earlier this summer.
Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman, said the initiative of neighborhood security cooperatives will help reduce crime. “Some villages are already carrying this out,” he said, noting that commune chiefs in Phnom Penh have been asked to find volunteers to take watch duties.
Kandal province Governor Tep Nunnory said even before the ministry’s order came down in June that he was approached by villagers concerned for their safety since some militia groups had been disarmed and disbanded.
“They were concerned there would be no protection,” Tep Nunnory said.
In neighborhoods like Tom Nop Teek, the police presence is thin, Houn Hei said, making cooperation of residents necessary.
Houn Hei and his neighbor Voy Sarath described the nightly rotation of neighborhood men through five posts within Tom Nop Teek: following orders from authorities, these men—one volunteer from each household—simply watch for strangers who might be criminals.
While they can try to resolve minor neighborhood disputes, the men have been ordered not to patrol or help arrest suspected criminals, Houn Hei said. They can only alert authorities to crimes being committed.
They have, however, been told by local police to arm themselves—something government officials have repeatedly said was not true. From recent interviews in Phnom Penh, it appears some neighborhood security details are more armed than others.
In Russei Keo district, Chrang Chumres commune chief Brak Sophorn said no weapons are carried by his security details.
Tep Nunnory said at least one detail leader in his province is issued a gun at the beginning of each watch.
Voy Sarath said the men often carry knives, machetes or axes while on watch, though he doubted they would be used.
“We have no intention to kill or chop down offenders,” he said.
The weapons, according to Houn Hei, are carried mainly for the comfort of the men who must potentially face armed bandits without having guns themselves.
According to government officials, a major challenge is maintaining security and protection for villagers while taking steps to shed the image of a country run, in part, by armed militias aligned politically with local chiefs. The militias often provide security to many areas, they say.
“We’ve taken the arms from them so that solves one problem, but it may create another problem with an unarmed person facing an armed robber,” You Hockry said.
But critics of the government’s plan say, even unarmed, the security details potentially can exert influence by intimidation, just as militias have done. Critics doubt the neighborhood watch initiative is really a move toward reform.
Tep Nunnory acknowledged that the units are likely to be at least indirectly under the control of local chiefs and made up of many of his former militiamen.
The critics, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, claim the organization of security units at this time could have a devastating effect on next year’s commune elections.
The elections mark the first time power in Cambodia’s estimated 1,660 communes will be determined by a ballot box and some fear the details will be used as muscle against political rivals.
“The [CPP] could use these units to get more support, not just by peaceful means but maybe by threat,” said Thun Saray, director of the local rights group Adhoc.
None of the commune or village chiefs interviewed said security details would impact the vote in Phnom Penh, though Houn Hei said they may have consequences for elections in the countryside, where he said intimidation was a bigger part of politics.
But a Cambodian source explained the security details as part of a nationwide attempt by the CPP-driven government to shed its image in the eyes of many that it rules by fear. He said it is “demobilizing” militias to please the international community, but the militiamen will remain influential on the local level.
A successful showing in the commune elections without the obvious show of force the militias represent would lend more credibility to the CPP, which sees the elections as a way to consolidate its power without the use of guns, said a former government adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)