Cambodia combats kidnappings

Authorities reluctantly point a finger at former or 'roving' soldiers.

After long days toiling in fields, the cover of night offers farmers the best opportunity to fall asleep - with only mosquitoes posing a threat to a good night's rest. But lately, the news of kidnappings in the countryside has caused some tossing and turning among Cambodian workers.

"I have to sleep here every night, because if I don't, people come to steal my watermelons," says Dy Aun from a simple hut built right on his field in a village in Kompong Cham Province, one of the areas hardest hit by enterprising criminals. "But local people around here have started talking about kidnappings."

Few reliable figures exist for the number of abductions that have recently occurred. While most experts say that the kidnappings of businessmen, politicians, and foreigners that occurred throughout the 1990s have almost ceased in the capital, they are increasingly moving into rural communities.

Mao Than, a banana plantation laborer, was taken at night by men wearing military uniforms, boots, and ammunition belts. They "asked for 1.5 million riel [about $380]," more than a year's earnings, Mao Than told a Phnom Penh newspaper in April, while recovering from a gunshot wound he received during his escape.

Reluctant to directly identify the suspects, officials say these incidents are "more complicated." But many are reported to be committed by men in military or police uniforms, and authorities in the capital suggest some of their counterparts may be involved. "It's not that it's difficult to crack down on the people committing these crimes," says Col. Lek Vannak, deputy chief of the Penal Department of the National Police. "What we worry about is that some people don't want to crack down. It depends on the level of commitment we have in those areas."

Military police began applying stricter measures in Phnom Penh about a year ago, shooting dead one of the country's two most notorious kidnappers, Ra Smach, in August in the outskirts of the city. Police arrested the other, Huoth Ravouth, on May 1. He is accused of kidnapping a parliamentary member and amassing a small fortune of several million dollars in ransoms since 1997. "After the big gangster [Ra Smach] was killed, there has been only one case of kidnapping in the city," says Colonel Lek Vannak.

High-ranking Cambodian officials and authorities have made progress in gaining control of the city, after decades of civil war and political infighting that ended just a few years ago. But the shift from city to countryside also reflects the distance officials have to go in reigning in the powers of local police and rogue military lingering outside the capital.

"I don't want to say it's the ex-soldiers, but you have to think that some former military are not very happy," says Gen. Lao Sunpa, chief of the Penal Department of the National Police. "They compare their living conditions to other people, they think they served different factions in the country for a long time, and then they have to demobilize without anything or for very little money."

About 1,500 of 30,000 soldiers have been demobilized under a new pilot program that aims to integrate them into civilian life by providing a year's worth of food rations and salary. But these mostly aging or ailing ex-fighters are not thought to be responsible for the crime wave. Most officials point to other sources: defectors who left the Khmer Rouge en masse in 1998, or those remaining at the end of factional fighting in 1997 who ousted then co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Both events were accompanied by a demobilization and reintegration into government ranks of tens of thousands of Khmer Rouge and royalist Funcinpec soldiers, many of whom had been fighting since early childhood.

Many of these and other government soldiers remain on the payroll, say observers, but do little more than wear the uniform, most notably in places like the northwestern province of Anlong Veng, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold. "Unfortunately there are just too many arms out there still, and uniforms can be purchased in the market," says Kent Wiedemann, United States ambassador to Cambodia.

Officials and diplomats say it's some of these soldiers who are also moonlighting in other sectors, be it guarding a karaoke parlor or a logging concession.

"There are many roving soldiers from the jungle, as I like to call them, who don't really want to get a job, so they collect money by putting up road blocks, or, in some instances, kidnapping," adds Mr. Wiedemann.

Officials, diplomats, and nongovernmental workers say these people still have their connections and tight community in rural Cambodia.

"In many ways this is typical for a post-war country," says Colin Gleichmann, chief technical adviser for the German Technical Cooperation's Cambodia Veterans Assistance Program.

"There's still this cloud of undefined power in rural areas," he adds. "But [people in the countryside] understand that they have to go through [military or police authorities] to get anything done."

Khieu Kola contributed to this report from Kompong Cham.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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