Kompong Speu province’s Samraong Tong district used to be plagued by robberies, thefts and gang violence. But such nuisances have largely become a thing of the past, now that villagers are taking matters into their own hands at the suggestion of the Interior Ministry.
“People have wooden bats, knives and axes with them to guard their villages and ceremonies,” district police chief Phat Kim Hong explained by telephone on Monday.
“[The civilian security unit] announces first that all people can enjoy themselves, but there are to be no arguments or fights,” he said.
On Nov 25, the Interior Ministry issued a directive to provincial and municipal authorities across the country, asking their governors to organize local security units.
The directive, signed by co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and Prince Norodom Sirivudh, called for civilian patrols to be established in districts, communes and villages, though it made no reference to villagers carrying weapons.
“We give people the right to defend their villages and cooperate with authorities,” National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy explained on Monday, adding that the primary responsibility of the villagers is to alert local authorities with a wooden clapper or a bell.
“If any place is insecure, people also have the function to stand and guard with the authorities,” he said.
The units are made up of local men and women, and are intended to make authorities feel more confident, especially in areas where there are fewer police.
Hok Lundy said Prime Minister Hun Sen supports the project, and that the government needs the cooperation of villagers, as 70 percent of the civilian militias formed during the 1980s have been demobilized. “We need people’s cooperation to fight and crack down on anarchy and insecurity brought about by gangsters,” he said.
The Interior Ministry initially proposed the security cooperatives in May 1999, though officials say the practice has died out in some areas.
Villagers across Samraong Tong have been working together well in the local vigilante project, Phat Kim Hong said. “We have peace since we began implementing this,” he said, adding that villagers recently arrested a thief as he tried to steal a motorbike and handed him over to the police.
The project does not always pan out so smoothly.
On Friday, a village security group beat a suspected motorbike thief to death in the district’s Taing Krouch commune, Phat Kim Hong said, adding that they had not been authorized to do so. No one has been arrested for the killing.
Village security units are also operating in Kompong Cham province, though some richer villagers are reluctant to go on patrol, and are excused if they pay cash or provide a chicken to their neighbors, said Provincial Police Chief Kang Sokhorn.
He added that the patrols are technically not allowed to carry weapons, though the rules are flexible.
“We do not allow people to use bats, knives and axes, but when they patrol at night they need to have them,” he said. “This is a physical way to frighten gangsters…. If they stir up a problem in the village, [villagers] will arrest them.”
But not everyone is comfortable with armed villagers dispensing justice. “Authorities have to inform people that they have to avoid using knives, axes and bats to kill the suspects, they just have the right to arrest them,” said Chan Soveth, investigator with local rights group Adhoc.
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, warned that the groups could be used against political opponents, or could spiral out of control.
“They must train people to follow the law and educate them to only arrest people for the police, not for mob killings,” she said.
But in Battambang province, civilian security patrols are proving essential, said Provincial Police Chief Choup Pothirit.
“If we expect only the police, they can’t intervene on time,” he said. “When we have the people’s defense in place, they can take action immediately.”