Are the days of Cambodia's cowboys numbered?

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Although gun ownership is reportedly down from the 1990s, the wealthy and connected still have little trouble bringing their pistols and assault rifles with them for an evening out. But are the days of Cambodia’s cowboys numbered?

When Virak*, 26, and his friends go out drinking at beer gardens and nightclubs, they always keep a gun in their car.

Sometimes when they get drunk, they get angry, he explained.

“They are the sons of high-level officers and they work as police, so they have guns,” Virak, who works at a local NGO, said. “If they open fire, they are not afraid of security guards or the authorities. If they are arrested, it will just be for a short time – their parents will go to guarantee to get them back.”

While almost all clubs ban guns, the prohibitions aren’t always enforced against the well-heeled
While almost all clubs ban guns, the prohibitions aren’t always enforced against the well-heeled. Heng Chivoan

Despite progress restricting their availability, firearms are still dangerously common in the Kingdom – particularly among the wealthy elite. And when booze and guns mix, the consequences can be tragic.

It’s a problem recognised at the highest levels of government.

In September 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen told provincial governors that powerful officials and their friends and families must be punished if they fire their guns or wield other weapons in public places.

“There should be no risk to anyone’s life just because they want to eat something with their family and friends,” the premier said. “But many have to run and escape from groups of gangsters who open fire.”

However, despite that appeal, the bullets have kept flying.

Last month, at least one man was injured when an angry patron with an AK-47 sprayed bullets outside the Rock nightclub on Monivong Boulevard.

Rock nightclub was the scene of a shooting last month.
Rock nightclub was the scene of a shooting last month. KIMBERLEY MCCOSKER

“Whether it’s police, or military carrying them off duty, or civilians who are perhaps in high positions, weapons are fairly easy to get here,” said John Mueller, managing director of Global Security Solutions.

“There are very few controls on weapons that are legally issued to a person; they might lend them to a friend or things like this.”

Sophal*, a 35-year-old military policeman, said that even though he was poor, he had a lot rich friends because he was steady in a fight and more often than not it was his job to do the shooting.

“I am poor – I rent my house – but I am honest person,” he said. “My friends like me because I always protect them by shooting and driving to escape. At night time, when problems happen, whoever opens fire first is the winner – then you can escape.”

He said bouncers wouldn’t even frisk him and his friends.

“Some places, the security guard dare not even look at our faces, because we get out of a Range Rover, Hummer, Escalade, something like this. They just let us walk into the club without checking,” he said.

He said at the KTVs, everything would be fun and games until one of his crew got angry. And then the guns would come out.

A security guard frisks a customer for weapons
A security guard frisks a customer for weapons. Heng Chivoan

“Every time when they get drunk, I’m always thinking about how I might have to start fighting or shooting, so when I drink with them, I don’t drink too much, so I can take care of them.”

He added that he had to spend some time in the provinces last year to let the heat die down after a shooting incident.

“I think it would be better if they didn’t have a gun when they went out, because they would just drink and have fun. But if they have a gun, they depend on it – when they are dancing or drinking and someone makes them angry, they end up shooting.”

Chany, 25, a security guard whose job is to check patrons for weapons before they enter his club, said when customers were drunk, they often simply refuse to listen to him.

“All the guns are supposed to remain in my weapon room outside the club, and they can get it back after drinking and dancing, but it is not easy to get them to leave their weapons with me.”

He said he was also supposed to patrol the club preventing trouble, but often it was outside the club that things kicked off.

“When they are angry, they go outside the club to get their guns, and then they start shooting,” he said.

Drunkenness often contributes to reckless gun use
Drunkenness often contributes to reckless gun use. Heng Chivoan

Howric Ghotbi, a partner in the Pontoon, Duplex and Epic nightclubs, said staff training was the key to avoiding problems.

“We’ve never had any issues in any of our clubs,” he said.

“We train our staff to defuse problems before they get out of hand.

“If someone’s angry, and we need to give them a free drink or a bottle to calm them down, so be it. It’s worth it.”

Another club owner, who declined to be identified, said there was once a tradition among young Cambodian men of shooting off a few rounds outside clubs if they felt they were slighted or ripped off.

“But this is becoming less and less – if the authorities find out, they will come and get you the next day,” he said.

Mueller said there are far fewer guns on the street than when he first arrived to Cambodia in 1991. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, weapons had mainly been in possession of the armed forces; however, in the early 1990s, with the disintegration of the various factions involved in the civil war, more and more guns fell into the hands of civilians.

“Guns of all kinds were everywhere,” Mueller said. “Any Cambodian who had any money carried weapons. They were easy to get. Some foreigners at that time also carried weapons, even though it was illegal.

“I was given an AK-47 for my birthday in 1992. I refused it. I said no, I can’t have it. But they were all over the place, you could buy an AK-47 for a couple of hundred dollars.”

Well-connected youth often keep weapons in their cars.
Well-connected youth often keep weapons in their cars. Photo Supplied

Mueller started Cambodia’s first private security firm in 1995.

“I was the one who convinced the government to disarm all private security,” he said. “And that was so popular they then took the guns away from the police in the streets. So now you don’t see traffic police with guns anymore.”

After the 1998 election, the government embarked on an extensive weapons collection and confiscation program which, according to the government, has seen hundreds of thousands guns either added to the government’s stockpiles or destroyed.

Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for human right group Licadho, said the reason shooting sprees keep happening was simple: impunity. If perpetrators are rich or connected, police don’t dare to arrest them.

“Whenever someone opens fire, the authorities never arrest them straight away,” he said. “They always wait until they get ordered to by a high-level officer.”

It’s a description of reality that Virak is quick to verify.

He said that after a shooting, his wealthy friends would always stay behind and let him escape because they know they will get off.

“If they are sent to prison, it will be in name only. They will stay at home.”

Virak said one of his friends who was supposedly sent to Prey Sar prison after a fight in one of Phnom Penh’s most famous nightclubs was on the phone less than 12 hours later wanting to go out again.

“When I heard his voice, I asked him, didn’t you get sent to Prey Sar? And my friend said: ‘Yes, but only my name. Now I am at home. Where are you? We can go out again.’ After then, he fled to Thailand.”

Mueller, the security expert, agreed that the government needed to enforce the law for it to be a deterrent.

“You can’t just say, after an off-duty police officer shoots a pistol in the air, we’re going to transfer him to another department or give him a slap on the hand – the penalty for a police officer firing his weapon in a club needs to be greater to deter that,” he said.

Following the most recent shooting at Rock, the son of high-ranking customs official Keo Sokheang, Keo Vitou, 24, and one of Sokheang’s bodyguards, Run Bunthoeun, were arrested and charged with intentional damage with aggravating circumstances, intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and possession of a weapon without permission.

Police said they were also hunting Sokheang’s brother-in-law in relation to the incident.

It remains to be seen whether they will be found guilty and what sort of punishment they will face.

The handling of the case hasn’t been lost on Virak, who said he recognised that the winds were changing.

“Recently, the authorities have become stricter then before,” he said. “If you shoot up the place, it’s harder to get away, and even if you do escape, they will find out who you are and come after you, so it’s happening less now.”

* Some names changed to protect identities.
Additional reporting by Will Jackson.