Its murder! Recent crime figures in Cambodia

An outline of murder figures

In comparing intentional homicide rates we find Cambodia is about as safe as living in…Idaho.

Fifteen years ago if you told friends you were going to Cambodia, they’d be quick to point out that it was a dangerous nation – on account of the landmines. But these days, with most of the minefields rendered safe, the three areas of fear are health, road safety and crime.

I thought I’d look up some reasonably recent figures (most crime data are 5 years old) and compare these figures to those in the USA.

First of all – perceptions. A global survey asked citizens in each country how serious the crime rates are and whether they believe crime is “High” in their country.  Put it this way, in Venezuela (2014) 97% felt crime rates were high in their country.  By contrast, 56% of USA citizens surveyed felt that crime was high in America. (39% in Canada.)  Meanwhile 38% of Cambodians felt that crime is High in Cambodia. And the lowest fear of serious crime? Japan and Singapore each boasted a mere 13% of respondents feeling that crime is High in their respective countries.

That was perception.  How about reality?   What is the intentional homicide rate per 100,000 people in various countries?  Again, let’s go to the top of the table: the Central Americas and Caribbean nations don’t look too safe.  Honduras (2016) delivered 57 intentional murder victims per 100,000 people, Jamaica came in 5th with 47 victims of intentional homicide (2016 figures) per 100,000 people.

So how does trigger-happy America compare?  The US has 5.3 intentional homicides per 100,000 people (2016) which is about the same as Cuba (4.99 per 100,000, 2016), and Thailand (3.2 per 100,000, 2016.)

Cambodia’s figures are, unfortunately older (2011) and at that stage the intentional homicide rate was 1.84 per 100,000. That’s about the same as Idaho and Maine.

Compare that to the UK (1.2 per 100,000) Australia (0.94 per 100,000, 2010) or Hong Kong which almost makes the bottom of the table (0.38 per 100,000) but is pipped by Monaco where, according to 2015 figures, zero homicides took places.

By the way these figures are look-uppable on Wikipedia Site where they quote United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime figures. Note these figures are at some variance compared to those published on NationMaster website which compares different nations on a wide range of issues.  I trust the UN figures more – but the definitions may account for this.  The UN cites intentional homicides per 100,000.  NationMaster reports “murders per 100,000.”

For a real crime story in Siem Reap:  Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

 

 

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A rumination on dope in Cambodia

February 2019 - Police Raid

February – Police raid uncovers green harvest. Takeo province.

In my life I’ve visited jails only three times. Each time was to visit one or other friend who was serving time for marijuana possession. The crackdown on ganja continues and since 2017 almost 20,000 mostly young people have been imprisoned on similar charges – most to do with marijuana rather than harder drugs such as heroin. There are many facets to the story of cannabis in Cambodia.

One angle is the historic use of marijuana in Cambodia, mostly as a kind of chewing tobacco – I’ve been told how farmers would place some between their gum and their lip and would benefit from the stimulus. In cooking it was used as a herb.

But, despite one tourist blogger describing marijuana as ‘semi-legal’ for years it hasn’t actually been legal at all since 1961 (in line with an international treaty.) The law was first applied in 1992 when Cambodia was just opening up, but this remained mostly unenforced.  For many years a blind eye was turned to casual usage.

In this context we see the rise of the backpacker trail and the rise of the “Happy Pizza” in Cambodia.  By the early 2000s Happy Pizzas were served from small restaurants, many laced with cannabis, but others merely dining out on the reputation and allure of the real thing.

Backpacker word of mouth about leniency towards dope smoking soon spread. Word of mouth is powerful stuff, and it did not take long for Cambodia’s reputation to reach travellers who wanted a liberal place to visit.

To lift a few lines from the Cannabis Culture website:

Since Cambodia began opening up to tourists and foreign residents in 1992, this unique country has earned a stellar reputation for the availability, affordability and tolerance of marijuana. Grass is enjoyed openly in bars, restaurants and guesthouses all over Phnom Penh.

At a typical guesthouse you will almost always find community marijuana lying on the porch table. Scott, an English teacher living at a guesthouse, explains: “Marijuana is so cheap that it doesn’t make sense to be possessive. We just leave some on the table to save people the trouble of going to their rooms to get their stash.”

This reputation is still being pushed. A story on the fast growing and popular Culture Trip website goes under the headline: Why Phnom Penh, Cambodia is The New Marijuana Hotspot. That was published January 2018 – after the current crackdown had begun.

Or look up Trip Advisor. Says one tourist of a beach in Sihanoukville: “Beautiful beach and a paradise for weed smokers.”

The politics of marijuana are complex. Now it is being traded legally in many States of the USA, and now that possession is decriminalised is many nations, it is interesting that the Cambodian Government is meanwhile dialling up their war on drugs. They’re coming down hard on users, and further up the chain to the suppliers.

Example: recently I heard from a Cambodian, a non-user, who was picked up at a party along with 10 others; all young men. There had been dope smoked at the party, and back at the station, the policeman handling the case liberally used his baton – forcing confessions of usage or supply by cracking the skulls of the detainees.  One guy after another. Even those who confessed got a baton slammed into the side of their skulls. A paradise for these weed smokers.

And in the news this last month – at least as reported by the Cambodia News English, major raids have resulted in significant plantations being destroyed by police.

Takeo province: According to a preliminary report, 1,398 ganja trees were torched on a 979 square meters plantation in Chroeung commune, Bakong commune, Kirivong district, Takeo province on February 17, 2019.

The green fingered horticulturalists had already fled by the time the cops arrived. They are now being hunted by law enforcement.

The Cambodian government, which is working with leaders in the six Mekong countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand) have agreed on a regional drug policy.  So the recent war on drugs is not isolated to Cambodia.

There appears to be a concern amongst SE Asian governments that the real problem is not actually about marijuana, but about organised crime in general. As best as anyone can guess, there’s a link between the supply and distribution of weed in Cambodia and the supply and delivery of harder, more addictive drugs.  Don’t confuse this with the “Gateway Drug” theory that posits that if you smoke dope, then you are more likely to try harder drugs. This has been debunked.

But at the supplier level there’s a nexus between dealing with soft drugs and harder stuff. The tuk tuk driver who offers you ganja is also in a position to offer something harder. Methamphetamine  perhaps.  That’s the bigger problem.

This report from the July 18th 2018 edition of This Week in Asia:

On New Year’s Day, [2018] Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a six-month crackdown on the drug scourge that he said had become an increasing grievance for the country’s people. His announcement came shortly after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who in 2016 launched a violent anti-drugs campaign in his own country that went on to kill 7,000 people in seven months….Perhaps [it is] not surprising that Hun Sen, after the first spike in detentions in February, rushed to assure Cambodians that his campaign would not be bloody.

Doubts about the true effectiveness of the crackdown have been voiced widely.  On the one hand the high number of arrests has placed a strain on the prison system. On the other hand there are fears that the crackdown might potentially facilitate more police corruption.  And who pays for all of this?

Well, there have been serious suggestions that drug suspects should have their possessions sold by the state to fund more rehab centres.  Users pay?  Though remember, you go to jail as a suspect – and have yet to be proven guilty. Human Rights representatives have voiced concern about the plan.

It saddens me that so many young people have been swept up in police raids, and equally it bothers me that non-Cambodians are still talking of Cambodia as a drug paradise.  Those tuk-tuk drivers who offer you ganja, or something harder – are kept in business by tourists – and it is seldom the foreigners who pay the price. That said, in April last year the Australian owner of the Soul Train Reggae Bar was arrested for possession and she faces years in prison.

Personally I’m not interested in cannabis, I tried to inhale once, as a student, but the spliff that got passed to me was too soggy to inhale anything. So I’m a Bill-(But I didn’t inhale)-Clinton-in-reverse on this one.  I tried to inhale.

But it bothers me that perhaps through the interaction with the west, what had once been a simple herb has now become a black market business.  Where there’s money in something illegal then you get corruption, crime, and – ultimately – people who lose everything.

We can argue the merits of decriminalisation, (I’m all for it) rehabilitation (essential!), and whether or not cannabis is actually harmless (I personally think it is harmful to functions such as memory,) but park that to one side.

In the given situation of Cambodia today, I don’t see how cannabis usage by anyone is doing anything other than fuel a problem.  What do you think?

Click here for an account of one of my prison visits. – what was it like? Actually very moving.

Your comments and feedback are welcome.  Write me a note!

Cambodian movies: Jailbreak

Jailbreak

Top rate action, amazing direction – a Euro/Khmer production that highlights the power of Khmer martial arts.

Movie making in Cambodia had its heyday in the 1960s when local film makers cranked out love stories, legends and ghost tales, as well as comedies.  All that was nearly wiped out during the Pol Pot years.  But after a wave of movies dealing with the horror of the Pol Pot years, a young generation of movie-makers is connecting with other people relatively new to movie-making, and the results are spectacular.

For those who like action the 2017 movie, Jailbreak is astounding.  It is a simple story that portrays a team of Special Task Force Officers who have been tasked with getting a gang leader out of prison and delivered to witness protection after he turns snitch. But the gang headed by The Madame (Celine Tran) has other plans, and soon, following her orders, a riot ensues in the jail leaving the Special Task Force officers trapped in the prison and fending for themselves.

Jailbreak is a  a no-frills film and the set is used and reused to denote different locations – so the feeling is a little claustrophobic – but that doesn’t matter. In showcasing the Khmer fighting style of bokator the viewer will be pummeled and amazed much as they were with the Thai hit Ong-Bak.  No CGI here – these fights are the real deal. The camera puts you right in the middle of the action.

Director Jimmy Henderson has put together a sharp, explosive entry that the Cambodian film industry can be proud of.

Link to trailer of Jailbreak

One of my favourite Cambodian bloggers Santel Phin listed his 10 recommended movies for those new to Cambodia. 

Free, free at last.A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

DSC_0816 (1)

My friend Pin. I went to visit him in prison and got mixed up in his release.  It was a mighty moment to share – a privilege – but his background, right back to his childhood, is still stacked against him.

Cambodian prisons used to be a horror story of violence and starvation, not to mention corruption.  But they seem to have cleaned up their act – and today the focus is more on rehabilitation. My friend Sopin, or just plain Pin, has been to prison twice on drugs charges – weed – and told me that these places used to be places of fear.  Now, he told me, they’re places of learning and counseling.

On December 28th I went out to visit him with a mutual friend Savong whom I’ve known since 2004 when Pin introduced me to Savong. We subsequently went on to build a school in the countryside. Pin was never central to the school project, but he is the person who connected Savong and me together. He was the key to the story that basically changed my life.

Pin is a handsome guy, with chiseled features and deep, but sparkling eyes. He has a natural charm that belies the fact that he endured a terrible upbriging. He knows no family and was raised at a Buddhist Monastery: Wat Thmey – which is known as the killing fields pagoda in Siem Reap.  On display there are skulls and bones from many hundred who were slaughtered during the genocide of the 1970s. After the years of genocide, when a quarter of the population lost their lives in Cambodia, the nation then endured years of poverty, cut off from world trade or aid.  Cambodia was so poor it could not grow enough rice to feed its own people. Children like Pin became beggars at age 6, and some survived eating insects and the bark off trees. Monasteries took these kids in, and it was at Wat Thmey that Savong grew up with Pin. They have a loyalty that goes way back, though in recent years this has been strained by Savong’s relentless drive to become a businessman and Pin’s loose, somewhat lost lifestyle – dabbling in work and trying out drugs. He served some time as a medic assistant in the army, a time he enjoyed, but three years ago he got arrested for smoking dope and engaging in gambling: in Cambodia you are not allowed to gamble for money – unless you’re a Chinese tourist in which case your Casino dollars are welcome. We’re talking about a weekly poker game.

On that occasion we organised a lawyer and he helped trim 2 years off Pin’s 5 year sentence. Pin resided in Siem Reap Prison where I visited him once.  He had a black eye due to a fight in his cell – where 21 prisoners shared meagre food and a shortage of space.

But he got released after 3 years and photos show that he actually put on weight.  Far from the sallow, hungry image of my imagination, Sopin emerged fit and healthy.

It was not to last.  With a record against his name, in a land where everyone carries around Cambodia ID, and everyone seems to sport a CV in the search for good jobs, Pin couldn’t get work.  A tuk tuk we’d given him 5 years earlier had been lost to drugs and gambling.  Soon he was back with mates who supplied him once more with drugs. It was only a matter of time before he got arrested again. This time he was sent to another prison – one aimed at re-education and rehabilitation.

Savong and I went out to visit on December 28th. The prison consisted of two main buildings set inside a flat dusty spread of farmland. On the left were the kitchens and the classrooms while the building on the right housed the prisoners, just 42 of them.  The gap between the two ground-level buildings was roofed over so that people could take advantage of the shade. We visited in the ‘cool’ season but the sun was already scorching when we came out that afternoon.

The centre is minimum security, with a basic 8ft fence around the grounds, and a guards station at the front gate. This is where we enquired whether we could meet Pin and meet the chief warden. The atmosphere was extremely casual.

As we strode in the 100 metres toward the two buildings we could see at least a dozen prisoners gathering to chat with each other and meeting visitors. Pin saw us and ran up and gave me a mighty hug. He was really happy to see two friends.  He’d not had other visitors in months and while I talked to him, Savong asked a guard whether he could discuss Pin’s case with the chief warden. I didn’t realise the guy he was talking to was a guard: I thought he was one of the prisoners.  Like them he wore a t-shirt, though his was red where everyone else was in blue.

Pin was in good spirits, and he showed me around the prison; the classrooms where they learned cooking and other life skills, as well as the main office in which I could see Savong busy in discussion. A few minutes into our meet up a small boy in blue pants and blue t-shirt came up to Pin and wrapped himself around Pins legs.

“He’s 10,” Pin explained. He was clinging to Pin and sensed something was up.  Our conversation spread out and was shared by other prisoners, all who seemed pretty relaxed though a couple of older guys looked pretty ravaged by drugs.  They stuck to themselves. Pin explained how he’d become the informal leader of the 42 prisoners, and had made sure the small boy – who was inside for glue sniffing (his parents were deemed unable to provide adequate care,) – was getting adequate care. Pin had clearly become a father figure for the boy.

Soon, Savong came out and explained that the prison was at a tipping point with Sopin. He’d made good progress, and the warden had noted our big hug too: an indication that Pin had a support network outside the prison gates. Finally they said that rehab prison was costly to provide and that Pin had been unable to pay anything toward the rehab. Technically he owed the Centre. It wasn’t a bribe, but it is hard to explain the leeway that the Chief Warden had at his disposal. What we did was suggest a few hundred dollars would settle what was owing, as well we could offer the promise to support Pin once on the outside. Would this be enough for the prison to let our friend go?  Suddenly this seemed to be on the cards.

Pin realised that the course of the discussion was about his future – and he could sense the possibility of an early release – and as I tried talking to him he really couldn’t concentrate on our particular conversation. He indicated that his heart was jumping out of his rib cage.  His future was on the line.

Savong said he needed to get back into town to get some cash, and he left me there so we could talk some more. Meanwhile the junior guard, the guy with the red shirt, was summoned to the Chief’s office and told that Pin could be released immediately. Word got around everyone in the shaded area within about 10 seconds. Pin lit up with the news and his mates rushed up to congratulate him. The small boy was crowded out and I nudged the well-wishers to one side so that the boy could snuggle up to Sopin. The boy was in tears.  How many times had he lost the people he’d learned to trust?  Now he was losing again.

I’m told that another chidren’s welfare NGO has good plans to look after the boy, but in the midst of what was proving to be an enjoyable visit the look on the small boy’s face was haunting.

Savong soon returned and signed some papers and, well, that was it.  Pin was free to go. Savong headed back to his car while I helped Pin carry some of his meagre possessions from the dormitory block where, now that visiting time was up, the prisoners had returned.  They were now behind bars, hanging onto these and watching Pin’s exit.

What a mighty feeling that was. As Pin walked the hundred meters back to the guard’s gate the other prisoners stood and gave him a ‘kar teahdai’ which is Khmer for a round of applause. Pin’s chest swelled and he strode in the same way astronauts in the movies stride when they’ve come back to earth – the slow motion walk of heroes. It was a pleasure to share that moment, though I bit my lip at the same time. This was just the beginning for Pin, once more, and I wondered how he’d cope this time, now he was out again. But what got me most was the face of the small boy in blue. He was standing at the barred window and applauding like the others. But when I turned to see him he momentarily stopped applauding and wiped away tears.

PS.  A week or two later I learned that Pin has gone back, as a visitor, to check that the little boy is okay. I hope they stay in contact.

Link:   A joke about Cambodian Prisons that got a little too close for comfort.

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