When well-protected business tycoons Teng Bunma and Mong Reththy are afraid of the current social climate, you know you’ve got some problems.
But fear is what the two articulated at Monday’s Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce meeting when they engaged in a discussion about the recent spate of kidnappings.
“I am becoming a scaly anteater [a recluse] because I am afraid of being kidnapped,” Mong Reththy said. “I never go out at evening time.”
Mong Reththy proceeded to ask Teng Bunma to solve the problem—to the applause of more than 100 business people. But the chamber president and powerful businessman had no easy answers.
“I’m also afraid,” Teng Bunma said. “The kidnapper is the powerful person.”
Exact kidnapping figures weren’t available Tuesday, but many people, including Dong Vantha, deputy director of the municipal penal police, agree it has become a serious problem in the capital.
The Chamber of Commerce discussion was sparked by the kidnapping last week of a Taiwanese director of a local transportation company. Several other high-profile executives and officials have been abducted in recent months.
A diplomat said that he’s heard far more kidnappings have gone unreported, especially those of Cambodian business people. “There have been rumors for a while of a target list,” he said.
Mong Reththy said that many of his friends want to invest in Cambodia, but that kidnapping has become a scary and “very deep pit” discouraging them from doing so.
But others say investors are simply waiting until the election is over.
Most alarmingly, many kidnappings are occurring in the broad daylight and in public places with numerous witnesses around.
The Taiwanese man, for example, was kidnapped by four armed men as he was dropping his son off at school.
Dong Vantha said he was told that the kidnappers asked for $1 million for the Taiwanese executive’s safe return.
He said he didn’t know exactly how much was eventually paid to free the man. Several ransoms have been in the $10,000 to $40,000 range.
Sar Vandy, deputy director of foreigner police, said that a committee has been formed to devise ways to crack down on the activity before the scheduled July 26 elections.
Italy could offer one model. It has tried to combat kidnapping gangs by forbidding families from paying ransom or negotiating with kidnappers, except with the permission of a prosecutor and the cooperation of the police.
Not everyone finds the current activity troubling.
Mark Henderson, resident manager of Coopers & Lybrand and a resident of Phnom Penh for the past six years, said he doesn’t see the situation any worse than it has been at times in the past.
But he did recommend extra caution between now and the elections.
In its guide for businessmen and investors, the multinational firm says robbery and car theft are the main security issues in Phnom Penh.
Chris Ho, president of the Malaysian Business Council, added that kidnappings are a fact of doing business all over the world, especially in Third World countries.
And while kidnappers in some countries use sophisticated methods to gather information about their prey, Cambodia is still quite primitive, he noted.
But Ho said his council regularly advises executives to avoid routines, eschew going out late at night alone, and refrain from revealing personal information to casual acquaintances.
Many executives are contemplating boosting their defenses.
John Svensson, manager of Global Safety, a Phnom Penh security firm, said there’s been an increase in inquiries for bulletproof vests, alarm systems, training and bodyguards.
But so far, he said, the potential customers are mostly “talk-shopping” rather than buying.