SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – The coastal city of Sihanoukville is one which is working hard to tackle its demons and lay ghosts to rest. It is also a city that still wears two faces.
One is the face of an idyllic seaside community that attracts thousands of mostly satisfied visitors every year to its relaxing beaches. The other face can be menacing and the hostility can be shocking.
Encountering this side of Sihanoukville can have tragic consequences, as events in recent weeks have shown.
In the early afternoon of July 20, Jane, a tourist, went to Victory Beach for a walk along the sand and a dip in the sea.
She greeted a couple of other travellers and noticed a handful of security guards dozing nearby in the shade. Despite the warm weather, the beach was almost empty.
From Victory Beach she strolled towards Hawaii Beach, the low tide allowing her to walk without having to climb over rocks. Jane stopped to swim and relaxed on the soft sand for a while.
Returning to Victory Beach, she was approached by a shirtless Khmer man wearing a distinctive red and green chequered mask, a black baseball cap and ragged shorts.
“He grabbed me around the throat and started strangling me,” she recalled.
Jane screamed but her cries were not heard. She screamed again and he throttled her until she could hardly breath, let alone make a sound. He then smashed Jane on the head with a rock until she fell to the ground where he violently raped her.
When finished, the rapist emptied her bag, apparently disgusted by the small amount of cash the victim was carrying, and ran towards Victory Beach.
The police report of the crime, filed with the assistance of local tourism officials, makes for painful reading. Police say they are investigating but have no suspects. Jane received medical treatment and has now left Cambodia.
Three days later, a young Australian woman was travelling back to Otres Beach from Serendipity in a tuk-tuk in the early hours of the morning when she fell asleep.
She awoke to find herself partially undressed in an unknown location. Her driver was raping her.
In both cases, local expatriates arranged for the women to get emergency medical treatment from a European doctor, a skilled gynaecologist, in downtown Sihanoukville.
“When the patient [Jane] arrived here, she was terrified,” her doctor told Khmer Times. “She had been injured by vicious blows to the head and required stitches. She also needed magnesium injections to calm her down because she was so traumatized.”
Both women were also given treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and advised they should be tested for HIV over the next six months. (There is a “window period” between the time HIV infection and the time a test detects it that can last up to six months, according to the San Francisco Aids Foundation.)
Surge in Violence
This community has been shocked by other acts of extreme violence in recent weeks, not least of which was the brutal execution of Denis Goncharov, whose killer remains at large.
Medical staff at a single small Sihanoukville clinic showed Khmer Times pictures of a Ukrainian man who was drugged, beaten, and had his motorcycle stolen. Days later, an Australian man was given emergency treatment for head injuries after being attacked by his motorcycle taxi driver.
In the same week, English and Canadian tourists were hospitalized after being beaten and robbed at a bar on Ochueteul Beach.
Despite the apparent ongoing concern of crime linked to Russians, all of the incidents were Cambodian nationals attacking foreigners – except for the murder of Mr. Goncharov – and all happened in recent weeks.
While petty crime has possibly decreased recently, the number of reported violent crimes has risen, ongoing investigations by Khmer Times reveal.
The first months of this year, April and May especially, also saw disturbing acts of violence here – including at least two rapes and multiple serious assaults – by Cambodian assailants.
What is alarming many local expatriate residents here is that they believe police are not tackling the crimes effectively.
Reached by telephone this week after multiple attempts, the Preah Sihanouk Chief of Police declined to comment on “open investigations” stating that journalists will have to “wait until the job is done to get a report.”
The Cambodia Daily reported (apparently from Phnom Penh) that Mr. Narin had told them “things were getting better and better” and that the “seaside city had stabilized.”
Sources close to police here say multiple investigations into numerous recent violent crimes are ongoing and remain unsolved.
Security for Tourists
“Chuon Narin seems like a good police officer and could make a difference,” said Douglas McColl, vice-president of the Sihanoukville Tourism Association. “But he’s only one man. The rest of the police here, they really need to pull their finger out.”
“This recent violence is also a reminder to us all that Sihanoukville isn’t perfect and we, as a community, must be more vigilant and aware.”
Tourists can be particularly attractive targets for criminals. Victims, understandably, often wish to leave Cambodia as quickly as possible after a violent crime, making investigations and prosecutions more difficult.
“Business-owners have a role to play,” added Mr. McColl. “We have to raise awareness and increase vigilance. Certain times, and certain areas, can be unsafe – but tourists especially need to be warned.”
Is Sihanoukville Safe?
Ask 10 residents here this question and you will receive 10 different answers.
Despite the lack of reliable data showing that violence here is in any way disproportionate to other large cities in Cambodia, there has been an obvious spike in brutal acts against tourists, local residents say.
The new Sihanoukville city governor – 31-year-old Y Sokleng – joins Chuon Narin in the ongoing regime “reshuffle” this week.
He has said the security and safety of tourists is a concern and tackling the issue will be his “first priority” in office.
When asked if he was hopeful and confident that the new city governor could have a positive impact here, Mr. McColl replied: “Oh, there’s always hope.”
“But confidence? That has to be earned.”
(Some names and personal details have been changed or omitted to protect the privacy of victims.)
A view of Victory Beach, Sihanoukville, which is popular with locals and often busy. On July 20th, it was the site of a tourist’s brutal rape in the middle of the day. Days later, another woman was raped by her tuk-tuk driver near Otres Beach. KT Photo: Jack Laurenson