For many developing countries, corruption in government is typical and pervasive. In Cambodia, it’s a well-documented fact that corruption is rampant, serving to undermine the economic infrastructure and act as a deterrent to much-needed foreign investment. On a recent trip to Cambodia, I witnessed a small dose of this corruption, a tourist’s eye-view, which left me sickly fascinated, and frankly, a little bit nervous.
Recently, my husband and I took a trip to Cambodia, spending a good part of our time in Siem Reap to explore the vast network of ancient jungle temples. After one particularly early morning of temple trekking, we decided to head into town for lunch and a welcome reprieve from the unforgiving early afternoon heat. Sitting in a corner pub, ensconced on comfortable sofas, cold gin & tonics sweating in hand, we hunkered down to watch the comings and goings taking place in the busy streets in front of us.
About half way into our first restorative G&T, one of Siem Reap’s finest – a physically menacing character, tall and angular with eyes like a snake – arrived. His mission: to pull over motorcyclists in violation of the arbitrarily-regulated thus frequently-ignored helmet law. His objective is not to issue tickets, but to collect bribe money, which he then passes to his boss, who then passes it up the food chain. The fee for the infraction – roughly $2 US. While this doesn’t seem like a lot to us, in Cambodian terms, this amounts to slightly more than the average daily wage.
Admittedly, on-the-take cops are not a new phenomenon in any part of the world. What is unsettling about this situation is the cop’s complete and total disinterest in hiding the transaction. This is all taking place in plain sight of a crowd of curious on-lookers, both locals and tourists, and I’m stunned by his blasé attitude. Maybe as a result of watching “The Godfather” films, or even “The Sopranos”, I just assumed there was a certain protocol to follow when strong-arming people for bribe money – a code of conduct dictating at least feigned discretion in the face of a clearly dishonorable act. His blatant disregard of the fact that tourist eyes were on him gave the clear impression that this guy wasn’t to be messed with. And if there were still any question as to the dubiousness of his character, it was summarily dismissed when he brought out his taser. Here’s how the whole thing went down.
The traffic cop pulls up, parks his motorcycle around the corner, and takes his place on the sidewalk across the main street from where we’re sitting, where he hopes to leverage the element of surprise. In a matter of minutes, he pulls over a couple of motorcyclists. Their reactions are a mixed bag, from a “what can you do” resignation to empassioned pleading and cajoling to anger and disgust. The violators themselves run the gamut – young boys and girls, dads with their kids – often several – sitting precipitously behind them, grandmothers – all manner of Cambodian society for whom motorcycles are the primary means of transportation.
If a violator cannot come up with the cash on the spot, he or she is sternly directed to go get it, leaving the motorcycle and frequently, passengers, to be held for ransom. Those with no means of paying at all are shouted at mercilessly, and put into what appeared to be a curbside “time out”, where they are forced to stay for whatever amount of time deemed necessary to satisfy the debt.
It isn’t long, however, before the cop’s cover is blown by the shopkeepers, who, in an act of solidarity, swiftly pass the information down the block in an effort to warn all incoming motorists. Fast-thinking drivers quickly veer off onto a side street to avoid the situation. Still others rise to the challenge, rev their bikes to capacity and blaze past the cop like something out of a Clint Eastwood film. All of this only serves to infuriate the cop, who quickly changes tactics and takes up a new position smack bang in the middle of the street, thus causing drivers to have to slow down. Here’s where the fun begins. With the offending motorists at a clear disadvantage, the cop reaches out and grabs the victims from their moving vehicle by their necks. This seems to work for awhile, but soon the cop changes tactics again – perhaps out of boredom or maybe in the interest of greater efficiency. Now he pulls out the menacing tazer, which he aims at the chest and neck of his victims as they attempt to steer clear of him. The snap snap sound catches me off guard – I’m thinking a bug zapper has just snared an industrial-sized mosquito, but then I see the victims – children and old people alike, fall off their bikes, like sacks of potatoes, and I realize my error. With his taser, he has clearly found a fail-proof method of entrapment, a classic example of shooting fish in a barrel.
In sick fascination, I have been watching this scene play out in front of me. I can’t take my eyes off of what’s going on. At some stage, I have put down my drink, grabbed my trusty pink felt-tip pen, and am feverishly scribbling the details of what is taking place on the inside cover of my Lonely Planet “Cambodia” guide book, while at the same time, extremely conscious of not wanting to attract the cop’s attention. To make matters worse, my husband insists on taking pictures of the scene, which he does quickly and discreetly, but which very nearly sends me into cardiac arrest. In my mind, I see the headline clearly, “American Tourists in Siem Reap Witness Police Mis-Conduct and are Never Heard From Again.” Fabulous!
As I steal a quick glance around me, I see that we are not the only ones fully engrossed in this little drama. Clearly this is the afternoon entertainment, and everyone on the street has come out of their businesses or stopped their activities to watch the show. The tuk-tuk drivers, parked alongside the curb enjoying an afternoon nap, are now alert and cheering on the poor motorcyclists, as if they have bets riding on the outcome. Even the landmine victims, whose singularity of focus in trolling for handouts is as sharp as anything I’ve ever seen, have taken a break to survey the scene.
After about an hour, the cop finally leaves and things settle back into a normal rhythm. We assumed he had either collected his daily take, moved to a different location where his cover was not yet blown, or simply called it a day in time to miss the afternoon downpour that arrives everyday with such consistency that you can practically set your watch by it. As we sat and assimilated the experience, a new G&T firmly in hand (medicinal at this point), we were left with a sense of being in a new frontier; in a place that functions, or perhaps dysfunctions, according to its own social justice system, despite the increasing influence of Western tourist dollars. Like others, we wonder how Cambodia – so poised to be a truly spectacular tourist destination, yet so in need of economic stability and capital infusion, will come through all of this.