CommentaryPhnom Penh

Crime and Punishment

A while back a friend who was teaching at a well known Phnom Penh school for kids related an incident in which a kid of six or seven told him his father could kill him if he so wanted. Just like that.

The recent late-night deaths of two people in front of Sparks disco, (when a police spokesman was quoted in the The Cambodia Daily as saying it was an accident not murder,) was in fact, premeditated homicide. A Khmer man who I recently had dealings with knows people who were there; it was a case of murder as retribution for having a toe stepped on. The fact that the toe-stepper apologized wasn’t enough to save his and his girlfriend’s lives.

The police are still ‘investigating’ the recent shot-in-the-back murder at the Heart of Darkness. Though the crime happened in a crowded nightclub, was perpetrated by the body-guarded son of an elite family and the killer or just his friends raced up and down Street 51 in his upscale vehicle, the police can’t seem to finger the nasty fellow.

Though it’s strictly conjecture on my part, if Cambodia’s elite prior to the Khmer Rouge were anything like today’s, it’s easy to imagine that Pol Pot had no problem recruiting lieutenants for his grisly cause.

‘In Cambodia, if you want to do something, you can,’ pretty much sums up the current Khmer attitude toward life. Not everybody can get away with murder, but with any connections at all, the most a blase killer can expect is a short time behind bars before being released for ‘lack of evidence.’ Maybe it has to do with the feeling that society needs to swing all the way back from the absolute control of the Khmer Rouge and just let people be.

Most times the attitude expressed in the above quote is manifested in the ability to interpret traffic lights as mere suggested modes of conduct rather than compulsory. There is no enforcement, so compliance is at the whim of and depends on the good will and civic-mindedness of each individual. However, murder is a whole order of magnitude more serious than running red lights (though traffic infractions can certainly also result in death) and should be in the ‘thou shalt not or you’ll be damned sorry’ category.

Even as pertains to mere traffic offences, today’s free-for-all attitude is becoming less and less tenable as society becomes more complex and cities become more crowded. The highest traffic accident rate in Asean is testimony to the above.

Life is also a crap shoot, and while the odds of hitting snake eyes keeps rising here, it’s hardly the only place where fairness and justice are at risk.

Add up the cost of all the corruption that’s gone down here in the last 13 years since the UNTAC election and it doesn’t equal one Enron. You are far more likely to die in a vehicle accident in Cambodia than in America, but far less likely to die the slow and painful death of industrial poisoning or adulterated food.

In Cambodia, getting away with murder is an everyday task, in the US “think OJ Simpson ” maybe not quite as easy but still eminently doable with sufficient resources. Merck, the pharmaceutical company, sold a drug for years after it knew it could cause heart attacks. Maybe 50,000 people died as a result. The company’s stock will suffer, maybe a few execs will spend a little time behind bars; hardly justice for the loss of so many lives.

Child sexual abuse is a serious crime. Get caught here and sent back to the states for prosecution and you could spend 20 years in the pokey. Alternatively if you have sufficient wealth and celebrity status, al a Michael Jackson, well the rules are different.

Corruption in America isn’t as pervasive and blatant as it is here ( though two stolen presidential elections in a row is getting mighty bald-faced) but it’s still the height of hypocrisy for the US to look down on Cambodia, which for historical reasons at least has reasonable excuses for its corruption and incompetence. Not so for America which should know better and do better.

However, ultimately, none of that excuses the rampant corruption and inequality before the law that characterizes life in Cambodian today. It’s not just an inconvenience; the 20% in bribes that gets added to the cost of producing garments here is the margin that might well make Cambodia truly competitive in world markets.

Lawlessness contributes to the feeling that it is still not safe or secure enough here to allow the economy and society to flower and is a serious deterrent to investment.

That said, Cambodia seems remarkably stable, free and expansive. It feels like it’s poised to fulfil a part of its destiny that was halted and turned back by the years of civil strife and horror that began with the CIA backed coup that removed Sihanouk and installed General Lon Nol in power.

Whatever one may say about Hun Sen, unflattering as much of it may be, he seems to have the country generally on the right track. Even so, if he doesn’t start paying more attention to equality and justice before the law for all citizens, we may all be in for a rude awakening. Cambodians are not always the gentlest, most forgiving people when they feel they’ve been wronged. If they’ll kill a motorbike thief on the spot, they’ll also bring down a government if sufficiently riled.

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