For those of you who don’t know, Wally Pleasant is a singer-songwriter from Michigan. He has a song called “I Hate Cops”. Now, as a general rule, I don’t hate anybody. But one can begin to see why someone would write a song like that after dealing with the police in Cambodia. Now that this is no longer a politically correct Peace Corps blog, I can tell you about it! Actually, it was even a Cambodian cop that gave me the idea in the first place.
The police here are kind of like the opposite of the image we’re given as little kids. Maybe some of you Michiganders heard it during “Safety Town” in kindergarten like I did, but at some point someone probably told you, “If you are lost/have a problem/don’t feel safe, you can tell a police officer!” That is not advice Cambodians would give. They would tell you, rather, don’t get involved with the police because they will make problems for you. Ideally, law enforcement is supposed to protect citizens, maintain order and, oh yeah, enforce the law. Cambodian police have a different take on this. They don’t enforce the law, they break it or bend it to accommodate their manifestly illegal actions. They abuse the authority alloted them to intimidate, extort, and oppress Cambodian citizens, the very people they’re supposed to be protecting.
Sometimes this happens in “small,” everyday occurrences. It is absolutely commonplace for police to set up little posts every here and there on the national roads in order to stop cars and extort money. Sometimes this is done on the basis of actual, existing laws. For instance, if you are missing a mirror on your truck, or if you are not wearing a helmet while driving a moto, they will wave you to the side of the road. However, it would take much longer (and would require much more paperwork on their part) to pay the real fine, and that real fine would belong to the government anyway, not the police. So what they do to “streamline” things is accept bribes. That way, taxis need not stop, only slow down long enough to pass a bribe out the window. How large the bribe is depends on how far apart the police stops are; the farther apart, the larger the bribe, because generally they are all working together. That way, if someone speeds through and doesn’t pay a bribe, the police can phone down the road and get them to stop the taxi (in which case things will be very bad for the driver and involve a lot more money).
Between my village and the city, to give an idea, taxis pay bribes about three different times. Paying these bribes is necessary to insure you can get where you want to go on time. Accepting these bribes is “necessary” on the part of the police because a large portion of that money needs to be paid up. Almost all bribes go up the hierarchy. Small-time road cops need to pay up to their district chiefs, district chiefs pay at the provincial level, provincial level cops pay up to Phnom Penh police, and so forth. Therefore, police chiefs in the city have really, really nice houses and a couple of cars, and send their kids to very nice private schools.
Police are also immune from committing crimes themselves. That is to say, no one is going to accuse them, let alone charge them, let alone investigate them, let alone prosecute them. Even if a case does get to court, and the judge is thinking maybe they won’t acquit some cop, the cop can easily pay a bribe or ask for help from a higher-up. Rule number one is, cops don’t go to jail. But the court system, itself, deserves a whole article, so I’ll stop at that.
Anyway, yeah, so cops pretty much get away with whatever they want, and bribery and corruption are the least of it. Rape, murder, human trafficking: yes, yes, and yes. In fact, Cambodian police are infamous for running their own brothels and facilitating trafficking of human beings, Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, and other nationalities.
The other day I was with a friend when he got stopped by police on his moto. The police said that he’d run a red light, which he had not (the light was green), and nevermind that all the traffic had “run the red light”. This is a regular occurrence, and normally police get away with it because people are so scared of making police angry they just pay the bribe and get on with it. My friend was certain he wasn’t wrong, however, so he protested the bribe. The police had no answer, probably ’cause they knew they were had, but tried to pressure him into paying the ticket by saying he was embarrassing them in front of a foreigner (me). “Just pay the money,” the cop at the little desk said, the one taking the bribes, “you don’t want to embarrass us in front of her, it makes Cambodian police look bad if she has to wait.” He doesn’t know how right he was.
Many times here I have heard Cambodians say, “Cambodian police make the whole country lose face.” Unfortunately their is little the average Cambodian can do about it… The system is very much stacked against them. There is corruption in the police force because there is corruption at the highest levels of government.
I feel a lot better having gotten that out. Thanks for the inspiration, Cambodian police. Now my blog will probably get blacklisted again.