Amid any economic downturn, one of the consequences is an increase in unemployment. And with more joblessness, experts say that a rise in crime and general social malaise is often next on the list of resulting factors.
In Cambodia, the trend is no different, with seven gold heists taking place in Phnom Penh alone since January, according to municipal police chief Touch Naruth. Armed assailants have also shot four people, killing two, in the course of the robberies.
“Selling gold, you cannot be sure that you are always safe,” said Ok Srey Penh, a gold seller in Phnom Penh’s Phsar O’Russei. “I heard about cases in this market and cases in other markets. It makes me scared.”
She is adamant that she should not be responsible for her own security inside a publicly owned marketplace. “Only the government can solve this,” she said.
Experts say that the recent rise in gold heists in Cambodia is part of a range of culminating factors, which include the emergence of more organized crime units in the country as well as more people falling into criminal activities as a result of heightened unemployment stemming from the global economic crisis.
Dr Anand Chaudhuri, country head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said there was a “definite link” between the rise in unemployment and “organized crime taking over the streets.”
“Gangs now are more controlled. For instance groups have become more organized,” he said, adding that distribution and smuggling techniques used by organized crime units in Cambodia were possible factors in the increased number of gold heists in recent times.
Another possible reason for the rise in such robberies could be the increase in gold prices over the past few months. Although the commodity has seen a dip in value through June—gold hit a 14-week high of $990 an ounce on June 1 and on Monday morning was priced at $914 in New York—it is still worth nearly 10 percent more than what is was at the beginning of January.
Furthermore, as the dollar has weakened, particularly over the past three months, demand for precious metals as an alternative investment has increased.
“Over the last four years there has been a dramatic increase in the price of gold worldwide,” said Mr Chaudhuri. “What’s more, with Cambodian gold you are guaranteed good quality.”
He explained that Cambodia has traditionally used gold for transactional purposes, particularly in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime when there was no national currency and a patchwork of currencies flowed through the country’s emerging economy.
“Today [gold] is an internationally quality investment,” he said.
According to Mr Chaudhuri, Cambodian gold is well respected for the accuracy and honesty sellers have when giving it a karat value. Moreover, there is a “culture of gold trade” in Cambodia that isn’t the case in other countries such as India, he added.
The effects of the rise in gold heists are scaring many of the gold vendors at stalls and exchanges dotted throughout Phnom Penh’s abundance of markets, some of which have no security whatsoever.
Yee Pov, a 50-year-old gold seller in Phsar O’Russei, says she keeps an eye out for potential robbers every day.
“Even though there are guards here, I still feel insecure,” she said.
Vendors in Chamkar Mon district’s Olympic Market express similar emotions. One lavishly dressed vendor plastered in sparkling studs and jewels said that Cambodian society had become very insecure as a result of the rise in unemployment.
“I am always fearful of robbers. Only after I get home from work do I feel safe,” she said, declining to give her name for fear of revealing her identity to thieves. And it is no wonder, with thousands of dollars worth of gold-plated jewelry inside her glass cabinet.
On Monday, she had $14,000 worth of golden rings on display, not to mention the jewels, necklaces and earrings packed densely inside her less-than-robust cabinet.
The rise in armed robberies has caught the attention of those in charge of the capital’s security.
Municipal Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong said the municipality had already deployed more police in all of the capital’s districts, but that they had also asked the Ministry of Interior to deploy even more police in crowded areas.
“We need people to provide us with information of those committing the crimes,” he said, adding that creating more jobs in the capital would help curb the recent rise in gold robberies.
Mok Chito, chief of the Interior Ministry’s penal police department, said that overall crime in the capital seemed to be on the decline for this year. But gold robberies are an anomaly.
“Robbers steal all kinds of stuff. But those who steal gold do it for the fame,” he said.
Still, the capital’s most recent case highlights just how much work is still left to do to ensure basic security needs, even if the country’s unemployment rate improves.
Som Rith, an eyewitness to a gold robbery that occurred on Saturday at Tomnub Market in Russei Keo district, said one of the reasons the robbery occurred was the lack of security in the area.
With two men keeping an eye out for any police, another man proceeded to hold the shop’s owner at gunpoint, while his partner smashed the glass cabinet with a hammer and leisurely emptied it of its contents, which included gold jewelry and money, he explained.
“The robbers held their victims under gunpoint for about 10 minutes,” he said, adding that police only arrived on the scene five minutes after the bandits had fled the market on motorbikes.