Within three days of Prime Minister Hun Manet ordering stricter enforcement against anti-social youth gangs, at least 70 youths have been charged with aggravated intentional violence and possession of unauthorised weapons.

Observers have suggested examining the root of the problem to ensure that sustainable solutions are found.

Between May 24 and 26, about 70 members of youth gangs were arrested across the Kingdom and placed in pre-trial detention. Others are currently on the run, with the authorities actively searching for them, according to press releases from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and some provincial courts, which were published by the Ministry of Justice.

The crackdown came after the prime minister’s May 23 order. He instructed the police to take legal action against all such groups, with no exceptions, to protect social order.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Touch Sokhak told The Post at the time that the time for educational measures is over, and prosecutions will be made.

The youths in custody have been charged with a variety of offences, including committing intentional acts of violence and possession of unauthorised weapons. The former charge carries a possible sentence of two to five years in prison, while the latter is punishable by six months to three years in jail if found guilty. 

“In order to curb the anti-social activities of these groups, which affect public order and the happiness of the people, the court will strictly enforce the law,” the municipal court said, on May 26.

Municipal police spokesman Sam Vichheka told The Post that the crackdown was ordered by Prime Minister Hun Manet and National Police Commissioner Sar Thet, as well as Phnom Penh Municipal police chief Chuon Narin.

“From May 23 to 26, the police arrested 45 individuals in 10 different cases. Among them are drug addicts, students, business people, scavengers, delivery drivers and the unemployed,” he said.

“All 45 of them have been sent to court on charges of intentional violence, property damage and the unauthorised possession of weapons,” he added.

He reiterated that the municipal police are committed to pursuing strict legal action against gang activities, through both administrative and law enforcement measures.

"We will work with school principals. If students are suspected of being gang members, we will search for their weapons. We will also inspect the shops and workshops that sell knives and swords and forbid them from selling to gang members. We will follow up to ensure they are following our instructions. If they do not, they will also face legal action,” he explained.

Social observer Meas Nee told The Post that while he supports the strict measure the government is taking, he also urged the authorities to take a broader view of the issue, especially the root causes which may lead to youth falling into such activities.

According to Nee, one possible cause is the negligence of local authorities, who failed to deal with the problems when they first arose. He also noted that there have been cases when the offenders were related to members of the police force or other authorities, which sometimes meant police officers were more sympathetic to wrongdoing, and perhaps lenient when dealing with problem youth.

Other likely causes may be drug or alcohol abuse or the fact that some young people have dropped out of school.

“If we just take youth and put them in jail without looking for reasons why they may have dropped out of the education system, this could lead to more of the problems we are seeing today. The government should look at this issue because these people are all at an age when they should be productive members of society,” he warned.

“If we do not think of a strategy and just throw them all in prison, it won’t be long before the prisons are full of young people. This will place a burden on the state, as we have to feed, clothe and house them. They won’t be able to work and provide for themselves and their families,” he said.

"I support strict measures, but I also request that the root causes be evaluated, including why children drop out of the education system,” he added. 

Last year, the government announced it would provide financial support and vocational training to 1.5 million youth from impoverished families. Tens of thousands are enrolled so far, according to the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training. Nee believed more support is needed. 

He said it was his understanding that not all of the youths who enrolled in the programmes could finish their vocational training, as some of them cannot afford accommodation and food.

Chhort Bunthang, Cultural Relations, Tourism and Education research officer at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, believed that in the short-term, the current crackdown would be effective, especially as gang activity is reported to be at particularly high levels.

He also suggested that strict enforcement will serve as a deterrent and frighten other children.

However, he acknowledged that this was not a long-term solution, as underlying issues need to be closely examined. He suggested that looking at how young offenders were raised by their families would be a good start.

“An important question is: Was the child raised correctly by their parents? Do they come from a single-parent family? We need to start with their home life. If their families are dysfunctional, they will struggle to be disciplined students, and this will continue over into how they behave in society,” he said.

Bunthang also encouraged educational experts to look into whether it may be necessary to weight “social” subjects like morality as heavily as academic subjects like mathematics, for example.

He suggested that cracking down on drugs and improving the management of alcohol will also contribute, along with increased public security by the authorities.

Violent content on social media and even in educational materials could influence their behaviour, he warned.

“If we do not find out the root causes of this issue and cut them out, we will see more and more youth going to jail. At some point, we will have to build more prisons, because there are already many inmates today,” he said.

“One possible solution could be a special centre which could educate them without the need to send them to prison. They could function like drug rehabilitation centres. Young offenders could be returned to their parents once they have been educated about the importance of turning their back on anti-social gang behaviour,” he added.