Lethal Violence, Crime and State Formation in Cambodia

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Table 6: Selected Crime Rates 1996: Cambodia, Philippines and Hong Kong

Cambodia Philippinesa Manilaa Phnom Penh Hong Kongb

Murder 5.7c 9.0 5.0 4.7c 1.2

Homicide 9.3d 16.2e 12.0e n/a 1.6

Robbery 12.5 9.0 25.0 59.8 1.3

Theft 17.7 12.0 28.0 62.6 680.0

Assaultsf 12.1 19.0 21.0 14.4 27.3

Rape 1.1 4.0 4.0 0.1 1.4

All Crime 60.0 110.0 180.0 156.0 1252.0
Sources: RGC MOI Judicial Police Centre 1998; 1999 Philippines Yearbook and; 1996 Annual Report of the Hong Kong Police. Notes: (a) all rates cited for the Phillipines and Manila are event or incident based; (b) all rates for Hong Kong are victim based; (c) murder rates for Cambodia and Phnom Penh are event/incident based; (d) the homicide rate for Cambodia is victim based; (e) murder and other homicide combined; (f) assaults causing injuries only; n/a = not available. All rates are per 100,000 population and rates for all crime are rounded to the nearest whole number.

Table 6 compares select crimes recorded in Cambodia with the reported levels in the Philippines and their respective cities. Rates for the city state of Hong Kong are included to provide the contrast of a highly developed Asian economy with generally well respected, financed and able policing institutions (see Broadhurst 2001). Because crime statistics in the Philippines are incident or event based the comparisons are only roughly approximate35. The Philippine homicide rate was perhaps twice that of Cambodia and the overall rates of recorded crime nearly double that of the Kingdom. Although heightened by episodic insurgency, especially in the religiously divided southern islands, the homicide rate may be driven more by modernity induced relative deprivation than is the case of the more isolated and insulated communes of Cambodia. The incidence of murder was similar in Phnom Penh and Manila and both experienced lower risks than the countryside but Manila had a higher incidence of homicide. Incidents of assault and rape were more frequent in Manila than Phnom Penh but armed robbery was lower than in Phnom Penh. Apart from homicide, the cities were generally more at risk of crime than the countryside and attracted higher rates of armed robbery and theft. Since 1994 incidences of homicide have fallen substantially in Manila and was estimated to be 2.6 in 2000 compared to 17.0 per 100,000 in 1994. Murder and homicide has remained high in rural areas and the overall national “volume” was 14.0 per 100,000 but significant declines indicate some success in the struggle to create effective general order policing in the Republic.

For Hong Kong rates of violent crime are much lower than either Cambodia or the Philippines with the exception of injurious assaults. This may reflect situational advantages, especially medical assistance, and lack of access to lethal weapons often significant determinants of mortality. The rate for property crime was considerably higher as was overall crime. A wealth of opportunity for theft, extensive personal insurance and a sophisticated modern police presumably account for this striking difference36.
Tentative Conclusions
This paper has attempted to estimate the prevalence of homicide, and describe the nature of violence from the limited sources available. Cambodia was found to have a high level of homicide fluctuating between 4.8-12.9 per 100,000 population. Much of the volatility in the homicide rate appears to reflect the varying stability of the state and acute episodic disruptions to economic growth. The nature of homicide in Cambodia differs from that of developed countries and features significant levels of extra-judicial homicide, banditry and mayhem that contributed to its lawless reputation. These forms of homicide are indicative of weak formal social control. Khmer like everybody else are subject to the same emotions and desires and thus homicide reflects the full range of possibilities albeit enhanced by ready access to highly lethal means. The majority of homicides are armed robberies suggesting conflicts over scarce resources (strain) and values permissive of violence (via the mechanism of war legitimation) are compelling factors in the elevated rate of homicide. Nevertheless, we know too little about the epidemiology to be confident about probable links between social structure and cultural norms. Given the appalling trauma of the recent past, enduring political conflicts, the sheer scale of economic adversity, the rapidity of urbanisation and social changes induced by market development, the current level of homicide is consistent with expectations. More developed neighbours also appear to experience similar levels of homicide but do not share the degree of social desperation or deficits in human assets. Indeed a rate somewhat lower than would be predicted by an integrated strain and cultural theory of violence may be indicated. Communal traditions, localism and pro-social values have prevailed as potent forms of collective protection and could be reinforced by effective governance, but these are fragile shields threatened by the tendency of modernity to privilege individuality and materialism.
Supported by international assistance the RGC has attempted to develop a rule of law state through reforms of the policing institutions but shortages of human and social capital compel the transitional process to be fraught. The incessant need for dispute settlement and crime control consequently tends to operate to mobilise under-paid policing institutions according to market forces and not abstract notions of the rule of law. The low salaries, poor training and equipment provided police and judicial officers induces bribery and corruption and provides the thread of impunity that enables predatory corruption to thrive and challenge or even capture key elements of the state. The establishment of effective policing institutions and their role in state legitimation is crucial to the provision of order and predicability as the means of furthering rational economic development and modernisation. The current situation, therefore, is not simply a product of lawless behaviour but the absence of law reflective of indigenous morality and legitimate institutions to enforce them. In practice the lawlessness reflected in extra-judicial homicide is a product of under-policing and the perceived lack of legitimacy of judicial processes that has left communal or customary dispute resolution intact. Summary killings by mobs and police may often reflect communal solidarity and achieved justice as much as the entrenched after-effects of wartime legitimation of violence. Many of these incidences are clear and deplorable breaches of the human rights of suspects but in circumstances were crime victimisation can be devastating to livelihoods citizens actions can also reflect the need to act swiftly and sternly against predators. Police respond either sympathetically or impotently thus further weakening rule by due process of law. It is, however, naïve to imagine that appeals to “normative” legal values will be effective in compelling weak policing institutions and fearful citizens to act otherwise.
The above suggest some of the causes that generate high risks of personal violence in Cambodia and the complex role the state and modernisation may play in transforming the nature of homicide and crime. A lack of temporal data and detailed epidemiology of violence allows only speculation about the role development and policing plays in the production of homicide and crime. The data indicates an increase in property crime, sustained as the forces of economic transformation change the nature of criminal opportunities and competition for scarce resources. Thus while political stability may lead to a decrease in group-conflicts and war-legitimated lethal violence such events account for a declining fraction of homicide in Cambodia. Reduction in such violence alone is unlikely to lead to a rapid decline in the homicide rate because inter-personal conflicts arise from a multiplicity of sources that ultimately draw from the deep reservoirs of emotion and need. The cultural and structural determinants of violence and the capacities and autonomy of states to modify violence is suggested by the extreme case of Cambodia. Comparative research may provide the contrast required in identifying the most salient conditions, weighing the role of the state, and policing institutions. Continued close monitoring of homicide and violence based on sound reporting and investigative systems is one process by which a reflective state may seek to restore the sanctity of life and de-legitimate the use of violence. Combined with a determined disarmament program and a commitment to ensuring legitimate independent law enforcement agencies such an approach should also contribute to a reduction or stabilisation of homicide and other violent crime despite the economic difficulties to be endured. We can conclude with the hope that as policing institutions become professional and rule by law established that a decline in extra-judicial forms of homicide would occur. Even so unless there is an indigenous moral order that is reflected in law and, relief from desperation homicide will remain a potent symbol of Cambodia’s continued trauma.
The author is indebted to General Teng Savong, General Van Rotha, Colonel Mohn Kahn San, Ministry of Interior, Royal Government of Cambodia, Mr. Robert Bradley, Mr. Steve Woodall, Mr. John Lawrie , Mr. Meav Siravuth, Mr. Ky Bunnal, Dr. Gloria Christie, Mr. Keith Martin and Mr. Kevin Maguire (Cambodian Criminal Justice Assistance Project) for their assistance during visits to Cambodia.

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1 B.A. B.Ed., Phd. (West.Aust.) M.Phil. (Cantab.): Associate Professor; Centre for Criminology, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong, email address .

2 Diplomatic advice to expatriates and travellers provided a concise warning of the risks of crime and political disturbances. The risks were judged as requiring "...a high degree of security awareness at all times", while "…widespread banditry in the countryside and ill-disciplined security forces constitute an ongoing security hazard" [Australian Embassy "Consular Travel Advice: Cambodia”, May 20, 1998]. Foreign nationals are at low risk of homicide but some risk of armed robbery, especially in Phnom Penh. Travel at night was considered dangerous and a natural curfew operated. Throughout 1999 and 2000 the general security situation improved and a decline in lethal violence in Phnom Penh but not in the countryside has been observed. Travel at night remains a high-risk activity especially in some locations although the self-imposed curfews of the past have now eased in Phnom Penh.

3 The accounts are reported by the Phnom Penh Post 1998 Volume 7, and extracted from Khmer newspapers Koh Santeheap and Rasmey Kampuchea by Bou Saroeun and Pok Sokundara.

4 Market reform and liberalisation was instigated in 1989 by the former State of Cambodia (SOC).

5A process mirrored in the mid-nineteenth century restoration of the monarchy after decades of Vietnamese occupation and hegemony. Chandler (1992) argues the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge induced Armageddon had parallels in the 1840s replete with foreign rivalries albeit less intensive than the cold war conflicts that propelled modern Cambodia to its present state. In the new constitution “…the King shall reign but not rule”.

6 The few records available do not permit trend analysis but suggest homicide rates were seldom more than 2 per 100,000. Throughout the colonial protectorate period, only one French Civil Servant was murdered while collecting taxes but in circumstances of extreme provocation. Caution needs to be applied in acceptance of the colonial picture of low crime. French policing practices were typically indirect and in the early post-colonial period policing became increasingly de-centralised and fragmented.

7 Shifts between homicide and suicide patterns and changes in the relationship between familial and non-familial homicides are sometimes observed in post-war societies. For example, in Hong Kong the immediate post war period saw declines in homicide but a rapid increase in suicide that stabilised at a significantly high rate as the economy developed (Broadhurst 1998). The decline in homicide also coincided with increases in the risks of intra-familial homicide suggesting that the process of development and modernisation weakened traditional bonds of filial piety based on the importance of family and clan in Taoism and Confucianism. Modernisation’s tendency to strengthen individuality and heighten sensibilities towards violence combined with a weakening of communalism and informal social controls increase the relative incidence of suicide compared to homicide. The prevalence of suicide is unknown for Cambodia but based on anecdotal, newspaper and hospital reports it appears far less common than homicide.

8 Durkheim argued the shift from mechanical (traditional) to organic (modern) forms of society produced more individual differences and deviance because of increasing specialisation and atomisation (anomie). This process weakened traditional social control and required increasing investment by the state in formal means of surveillance and social control.

9 In Europe violence declined with the advent of mass education, health, and literacy but declines in communalism and the rise of individualism tended to transform violence to more intimate relationships or suicide [see Gillis 1994].

10 The gross re-structuring of economic relations in the transformation of the pre-modern state also generates significant conflicts because of the restructuring of labour and modes of production. Displaced workers may be brutalised and prey on the vulnerable while the land-less and land poor face competition from commercial agro-capital and their enclosure like practices.

11 Neopolitan found that Islamic countries had lower homicide rates and the proportion of Christians (in non-Christian nations) indicative of higher homicide rates. He did not interpret these as differences arising from the religions per se but rather the former reflected cultural integration and traditional values while the latter was associated with the role of colonisation and the resultant cultural conflict.

12 Following Elias (1939), see also Johnston and Monakkonen (1996).

13 In the constitutional framework adopted by the Paris Accords RGC governance and succession is regulated by free and fair elections.

14 The November 2000 raid on Phnom Pehn by the exile backed self-styled Cambodian Freedom Fighters is an example of the persistence of these threats. The poorly conceived attack was designed to undermine confidence in the protective role of the state and calculated to compel repressive counter-measures.

15 Based on National and Judicial police arrest statistics clearance rates are particularly low for murder, assault and rape but higher in respect to robbery and theft. A 1998 MOI (Judicial Police Centre) report stressed increasing encounters with well organized criminal syndicates often enjoying immunity from law enforcement and interdiction. The Phnom Penh Post has frequently alleged that RGC military and police have been implicated in organized crime and racketeering. The pay of many officials is insufficient to meet everyday needs and many, if not most, are forced to seek employment or funds by exploiting their official status.

16 The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre [CWCC] has estimated that between 50-55,000 prostitutes are active with 14,000 thought to be under-age. Conditions in illegal brothels are often akin to slavery but the extreme poverty of many families suggests that irresistible “push-pull” factors compel the sacrifice of daughters regardless of conditions (personal communication Ms. Michele Brandt CWCC).

17 UNCOHCHR and the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights [CIHR] undertook training programs on the constitution for senior officers of the Royal Army of Cambodia, National Police, Gendarmerie [Military Police] and MOI in human rights, democracy and neutrality.

18Chandler (1992: 105) refers to 19th century client-patron relationships amongst officials as one of "consuming" and "eating" their clients, slaves and people. Cambodian folklore portrayed the elite or the patrons as "...tigers, crocodiles, and venomous snakes" in much the same way Khmer may talk of government officials today.

19 Little is published about the nature of crime in Theravada Buddhist societies and only limited temporal data is available to compare with other ASEAN countries. Thailand, however, does offer a comparative perspective, which suggests that the initial processes of modernisation provoke an increase in crime, including violent crime. The murder rate has fallen dramatically from the 1970s when intentional homicides were estimated to be 24-34 per 100,000 but stabilised toward the late 1980s and in 2000 was reported to be 8.3 per 100,000.

20Without a crime victim survey, it is difficult to assess the extent that police statistics are an index crime.

21 MOI Judicial Police and medical officers, who participated in a medico-legal investigation course in May 1999, also provided valuable information on the scope and nature of homicide in Cambodia.

22 Prison census data is provided by the Asian Pacific Correctional Association Conference: personal communication Mr. David Biles.

23 The population of Cambodia was estimated to be 10,824,244 as of mid year 1998 (Central Bureau of Elections) and at end-of -year 1996 was estimated to be 10,300,000 and 9,500,000 in 1993 (National Statistics Office). The demography shows a very young population and substantial imbalance in the sex ratio: women outnumber men in the older age groups (Huguet 1997). Age and sex rates are important in identifying trends and changes in offender and victim profiles but are unobtainable. The rates for 1996 are adjusted for missing returns from remote provinces.

24 The municipality of Pailin under Khmer Rouge control in 1996 was excluded because it was not within the jurisdiction of the RGC. The high rate for Seim Reap province arises from remanent KR banditry in the south-east and fishing disputes along the north-eastern shores of the Tonle Sap. The provincial centre and tourist town of Seim Reap enjoys relative tranquillity and has a rate lower than for the province as a whole.

25 Investigative capability remains compromised and police are bereft of forensic scientific services.

26 Although not widely reported it was believed that the weaker Funcinpec forces precipitated the coup by attacking the residence of Hun Sen in a “first blow” attempt to neutralise CPP superior military strength. The defeated Funcinpec forces withdrew to the north-east where they continued to resist RGC forces until a political settlement was reached late in 1998.

27 As previously, noted Khmer are at least as reluctant to report crimes to police as other nationalities. However, it would appear in rural areas that this reluctance extends to serious crime including homicides. A study of customary dispute settlement undertaken in 1997 showed that although suspicious deaths are reported to commune officials they are often dealt without recourse to Judicial Police or the courts (Tarr 1998). It is probable some of these cases are not reported to National Judicial Police.

28 Police record serious offences and therefore UNCOHCHR suspicious death reports overlap with police murder records and are apparently not in addition to official murder counts [personal communication MOI].

29 For example, the UN body reported thirteen "killings", four alleged killings and three attempted killings linked to political intimidation in the four months prior to the 1998 elections. The COHCHR also confirmed 76 of 189 serious allegations involved political motives.

30For example the International Classification of Disease and World Health Organization E codes; see also US Department of Justice 1997.

31 The concept of modernisation is often synonymous in the ASEAN region with the problematic notion of “Westernisation” that implies the dual adoption of European technology and politico-cultural values.

32 Caution is necessary in interpreting differences in homicide rates since differences occur across measures (ie. WHO, INTERPOL, UN), counting rules and definitions between nations. No data on homicide was available for Brunei, Bhutan and two important neighbours of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. For further discussion about various cross-national measures of homicide, see Newman (1999:257).

33 The socio-economic indicators reported in Table 5 are for 1997 as cited in Asiaweek, June 19, 1998.

34The homicide rate in the US (sometimes described as a “weak” domestic state) has subsequently fallen to about 7 per 100,000 while the rate in Cambodia has increased.

35 The INTERPOL homicide victim-based rate for the Philippines includes attempted homicides and manslaughter as reported in Table 5. This is not comparable with the data available for Cambodia that excludes attempts. Comparisons are thus drawn with national data based on “volume” that distinguishes between murder [intentional] and homicide [other lethal acts]: this source also provides data for Manila.

36 Although armed robbery rates in Phnom Penh and Manila appear high, especially in the city, Australian rates of armed robbery [although usually not involving firearms] were in 1996 34.2 per 100,000, and 55.2 for unarmed robbery. Recorded theft rates are also much higher at 1714 for house break-ins, 671 for vehicle theft and 2849 per 100,000 for other thefts (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1997).

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