Near one of my work locations a 3 year old girl sits in grandad’s tuk tuk with him everyday for the six hours that grandma spends at work as a cleaner. It is a busy road and I have always joked that I think this is the road where I will die. Phnom Penh’s footpaths are crowded with parked vehicles and shop stalls so pedestrians become a part of the mix in the traffic chaos. Standing aside to let bigger vehicles pass by and brushing up against moto drivers is normal.
I always stop at the parked tuk tuk to say hello to my little friend as I walk past. The other day with my phone and some cash in a small clutch purse, I said farewell to her at the tuk tuk. She has taken to kissing me goodbye on the cheek. As we said goodbye I laughingly turned away from her as a moto driver no more than about 20yo came towards me on the wrong side of the road. This was not unusual until he brushed his hand along my arm. With barely enough time to wonder why he was touching me, he gently took the wallet from my hand and accelerated across the road.
Opportunistic muggings are the most common type of robbery in Cambodia, with teams on motorbikes working together to snatch and grab items. One of our cleaners recently came off her motorbike when a team of young men pulled her bag, sending her crashing to the ground. She broke a leg, a bone in her shoulder and lost a tooth. This is not an uncommon outcome of bag snatching. So I consider myself beyond lucky to have experienced such a gentle robbery.
Not knowing any of the right words to shout, I stood speechlessly pointing at him in the distance, collected my thoughts in time to read his license plate number and ran to work for English speaking help. When two colleagues and I returned to ask for grandad’s tuk tuk service to the police station, my little friend was furrow-browed and worried. I imagine it was not the first time she’s seen the seedier side of life, nor will it be the last, despite her own family being perfectly respectable. A side effect of being born into poverty, is that you’re not protected from the outside world the way we are when we live in comfort.
Grandad drove us to the nearest police station. A house converted to an office, with a few people in the yard who told us they were not responsible for robberies and we should go to a second station to make our report. The second station referred us to a third. I was surprised to learn that I pass by these police stations regularly and had never noticed them. Their blue signage is in Khmer and there are almost no police vehicles in Phnom Penh, certainly not at the stations, despite a presence of heavily armed military police, particularly near the Prime Minister’s home and office buildings. Still lunchtime, a lone bare-chested staff member sat on a plastic chair in the austere concrete floored garage, watching television. My colleagues informed him of why we were there and he pointed to a telephone number on the wall.
A short telephone conversation ensued and within about five minutes the responsible person arrived on a private moto, in khaki clothes. He found the right forms and completed them in Khmer based on what my colleagues and then the tuk tuk driver, visibly uncomfortable inside a police station, informed him on my behalf. The plate number I had memorised was incomplete so he did not write it down at all. There were no computers in any of the stations we visited which were furnished with old wooden desks, hammocks slung between posts and layers of dust. I got a clear impression that no investigation would be carried out. The form was signed with my thumb in red ink. At least a copy is available for insurance purposes, perhaps the only real use of reporting it to the police?
Friends have nearly all since told me that often thieves and police work together, with police taking a cut of any spoils in exchange for impunity. The police know who their local thieves are and everyone has suggested that my mugger had probably followed me for a while, getting to know my routine so that he could know when to pounce. This seems likely given that he happened past me just as I was walking away from my little tuk tuk friend after lunch – a daily routine. It also probably suggests he is local to the area which doesn’t help me as I walk the streets now, and I need to stop obsessing with finding him vigilante-style!
Reading what I can about the police in Cambodia, I have learned that, as with all government staff, police are some of the country’s lowest paid workers. The salary of government staff, be it doctors, teachers, administration or cleaners, is not enough to live on, meaning that people are forced to supplement their incomes. Positions are sold to the best candidates, and the money trickles up through the ranks systematically. The benefit of government work is that once you have a position, it is lifelong and includes a small pension beyond retirement, which is unavailable to most. For doctors this means that all medical care is user-pays, with fees for every test, investigation and treatment openly displayed on hospital walls. For nurses it means that patients wanting any intervention, prescribed or otherwise, will have better luck if some small amount of cash exchanges hands. Most doctors and nurses also have their own private practices or pharmacy dispensaries, where they work afternoons unless allocated “on duty” at their government job. In the police force, supplemental income is available through fees for writing reports or, as everyone openly states, collaborating with petty criminals. There was no mention of paying this guy any fee for writing my report.
Today my Facebook wall includes stories from a friend who is visiting Copenhagen from Australia; another in Oslo from London; another on Lake Titicaca from Australia; my cousin who was recently in Cambodia from Australia; a friend who traveled via Cambodia for a few days en route to Myanmar; another friend who has been at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne; and the list of travels and fun seems endless. All of them are hard working, ordinary people.
Those hard working, ordinary people from the rich world enjoying everything that life has to offer, are not any different from my hard working, ordinary friends and colleagues in Cambodia. The single difference is that one group were born in a strong economy with functioning institutions, while the other group exist in a micro, trickle-up economy. When survival is your main focus, being forced to work inside a corrupt system victimises people as much as being a customer of corruption. A friend once told me “I don’t like it when the People From The Sky accuse my country of corruption and point to me like it is my fault. I am not the corruption. I am the victim of the corruption and if I can fix it then why can’t the People From The Sky, who know so much, fix it?”. His frustration was palpable and I could not agree more with the sentiment.
To quote Michael Wunsch in his January 2017 article, The Significance of First World Problems, privileges of those of us in the rich world include well-paying jobs, functioning institutions, access to education, freedom of speech and seven types of chocolate ice cream in stores. Part of being someone with these privileges must surely include fighting to keep them for ourselves; and fighting for those who don’t have the same privileges.
These thoughts remind me of the Australian government’s collusion with the Cambodian regime in 2014, when a $55 million agreement was negotiated in secret for the relocation of refugees detained on Nauru, to Cambodia. (The Cambodia Agreement). A monumental failure for everyone but the Cambodian authorities, three or four refugees have so far made their way to Cambodia under the agreement. Only one remains here which comes as no surprise given the nation’s incapacity to look after their own, let alone vulnerable people from elsewhere. Are our two governments so different? One is perhaps doing what the other would do if they could find a way to break down our established and functioning systems, enough?