Classes have finished for the day, and a handful of high school students gather at a stall selling drinks outside Sisowath High School. They are typical Phnom Penh students, bedecked in blue and white uniforms, clutching book bags, catching up with friends.
But after sunset, many in the crowd will trade the innocent high school environment for a karaoke club, replace their glasses of sugarcane juice with cans of beer, and carry handguns instead of schoolbooks.
“Gangs are a common thing at this school,” said Nal Dina, 23, whose name, like others in this story, has been changed for her protection. “Most of the big gang members have stopped studying and just come to school every now and then to fight over girls. They are mostly the sons of rich families. The nephews of Hun Sen are the biggest gangsters in Cambodia.”
Nhim Pov, 19, one of the prime minister’s five nephews who are known for their misdeeds around the city, was arrested two weeks ago for firing two shots in the air outside of Nightclub Karaoke. And while Deputy Director of Prey Sar Prison Hak Vat claims that Nhim Pov is behind bars, an anonymous police source said the teenager was merely under house arrest.
Prototypes of teen gangsters are not limited to Hun Sen’s notorious nephews, however. Nal Dina admitted that he, too, was a gang member. “I joined a gang so I would have protection,” he said.
“It is pretty violent growing up as a kid in Cambodia, in between getting beaten up by other kids and being hit by your parents at home, said Pen Sambo, 20, at a cafe near Boeng Kak lake.
In a regional opinion survey by Unicef published in September, 56 percent of the approximately 3.7 million Cambodian children between the ages of 9 and 17 polled claimed to be victims of assault, more than double the percentage of any other Asian Pacific country included in the survey.
Cambodia also had the highest percentage of respondents claiming that they felt “rather unsafe” at night, and the second lowest percentage of respondents claiming to have “very much respect for authority figures.”
Ratana Mony, 17, in handcuffs outside of the municipal court—sentenced to 8 months imprisonment for assisted robbery—agreed that Cambodian teenagers don’t have a lot of respect for authority figures. The reason became clear in his description of a typical night with his gang.
“We would drive around in a car until 2 am playing loud music, driving through red lights. In six months of hanging out with that gang, I never got arrested. I wasn’t worried. I knew that the police were scared of us, and that we had two guns in the car.”
The gang’s illegal activities weren’t just limited to running traffic lights, he said. The gang also worked with eight Cameroonians in a money laundering racket, got high on drugs in several of the city’s large discos, and, armed with handguns and grenades, fought with other gangs by the riverside, he claimed.
Ratana Mony said it was easy to spend $300 in one night. And since he didn’t have wealthy parents, he stole things from his family instead. “The gang felt more like my family than the people I lived with, since my parents died when I was very young and I didn’t get along with my relatives,” he said.
Sok Samnen 19, went to live with a gang after his parents kicked him out of the house for stealing his brother’s moto. The rich kids would go home to their parents’ houses, but the poorer kids shared money and food, he said.
“It was all equal in the gang, with no difference between the classes,” he said. He said that he joined the gang because he had nowhere else to go. “Sometimes it was fun to have a lot of money,” he explained.
He described a fight with a stronger teen gang that occurred one night outside the Royal Palace. “They were a rich gang that arrived on motorcycles and in Landcruisers. They were all the sons of high-ranking people, and had knives and guns in the Landcruisers,” he said.
He and his girlfriend, who was on the back of his moto, got separated from the rest of the gang, he said. He was beaten unconscious by his rivals, and his girlfriend was taken away in one of the Landcruisers. She came back three days later, he claimed, after she had allegedly been raped by the members of the other gang.
Le Rany, 19, a prostitute from Svay Rieng, has had similar experiences. But despite the recurring nightmares, she said she’ll never go to the police. “If you don’t have money, the police will just ignore you,” she said.
She said a few days before the Water Festival she agreed to go with a teenager to a guest house in Takmao. But instead, she was taken to a banana plantation where she saw a group of teenage boys waiting. They had mobile phones and looked wealthy, she said. She told them she wouldn’t have sex with all of them, and ran to a house down the road. The man inside brought her to the main road, claiming to want to help her get out of the town. But then it became clear that he was also in the gang.
“They raped me and beat me until I was unconscious, and then left me in the mud. When I woke up, they’d taken everything—my clothes, all of my valuables.”
If she ever met members of that gang again, she would kill them for what they did to her—even if it meant going to prison, she said.
Twenty-year-old Leakhana, another prostitute, said she frequently sees the gang that raped her out at night, but she pretends the attack never happened, even though she was beaten and forced to have sex with six of them in a temple in Neak Leung.
Teng Borany, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s Penal Department, admitted that such crimes were a problem—and blamed it on pornography. “We don’t know where these crimes are occurring, however. Not even the parents know what their kids are doing on the way to school or if they are in school,” he said.
He said teenagers today are very different than those of previous generations. “It’s the computer age. The kids are smarter now. Cleverness mixed with pornography, video games, little education and little implementation of the law turns teens into bad people,” he said.
What used to be cliques—guys just “hanging out”—became a vortex of girls, clothing and drugs in the 1990’s, when gangs became a fad, according to DJ Soph, a deejay at FM 94. 5 and a Phnom Penh pop culture icon.
“The problem is that youth don’t have a recreational place except for night life. There’s a new generation with growing anxiety and bitterness. Pretty soon the youth will rebel It’s not the dark ages anymore where kids listen to everything their parents say. They need to belong somewhere. It’s the same thought kids have all over the world,” he said.
He thought the same way at their age, he said, when he was in a teen gang in Los Angeles. “I can relate to the kids a lot. I see them at bars now and just smile because I know that I wouldn’t have listened to anyone when I was their age,” he said.
But while he said that Cambodian gangs are more “lightweight” than the gangs he saw in the US, the crimes they commit are more “cold-blooded.” He said one reason is that today’s youth in Cambodia’s grew up under the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese government-controlled regimes with virtually no supervision. And with death everywhere, life held little value, he added.
But he stressed that gangs were largely imported from the outside. French and Australian Khmers returning to Cambodia supplied curious Khmer teenagers with answers to their questions about gangs they had seen in movies, he said. And with the guns, knives and bodyguards many of their parents’ occupations provided, privileged Cambodian teenagers had all the materials necessary for gang activities.
It has got out of control, and the kids think they are untouchable because of their connections, he said. But the only people that should be able to stop them—their parents—either lock them up or send them to the countryside. “Sending them to [pagodas] doesn’t work anymore,” he added.
An effective solution would be anti-drug education in schools, more recreational opportunities and the right kind of attention from their parents, Soph said. “It all starts in the family. These kids need loving, caring and talking,” he said.
But for gangsters who don’t have the cash to stay out of prison by bribing police, love and care is a far cry from what the Cambodian justice system provides. Yim Sary, a lawyer from the Cambodian Bar Association, said teenagers who are arrested are often beaten until they confess to a crime, and the Untac law that prevents any pre-trial detention over one month for those under 18 is often ignored.
Keo Sokea, a child right’s lawyer from Unicef, agreed. Kids either bribe the police, he said, or go to prison with other adults, instead of a rehabilitation center with other juveniles where they belong. “Youth rehabilitation is functioning in a legal vacuum,” he said, adding that the Ministry of Interior scheduled a meeting in October to discuss to look into the legal framework of the issue.
But the meeting never took place, according to Teng Borany. He claimed, however, that the ministry was currently drafting a plan that would station police officers in schools and schedule classes to educate kids about the law.
But Sebastian Marot, director of “Friends” NGO, which deals with street kids and ex-gang members, warns against solutions that don’t include creating new entertainment venues for kids. “All [the police] are doing right now is trying to repress the kids, but it’s only going to result in more gang action. A counter-culture has been awakened and incited,” he said.
And promises of increased police presence in the schools are cold comfort for Phy Sothea, 27, a prostitute from Kompong Cham, who was recently raped and beaten by a teen gang in a paddy field near Pochentong Airport, miles away from any school campus.
For Phy Sothea and the other victims of crimes perpetrated by teen gangs, the consequences of a corrupt society are clear: “My friend was beaten to death two months ago by a teen gang for reporting a rape to the police. The only thing you can do is try and stay out of their way,” she said.
(Additional Reporting by Ana Nov)