SIHANOUKVILLE – It is 11:00 pm in Sihanoukville and bar hoppers are being offered a buffet of drugs on Serendipity Beach Road. This happens every night.
Although an “anti-drugs police taskforce” was announced for the city in May, it is nowhere to be seen in this area of the town, where drug dealers work openly.
For some visitors to Cambodia’s premier coastal resort, there is no party without drugs, and this is creating business opportunities for those who are willing to risk breaking the law. Despite a promised crackdown, business appears to be booming.
A Laughing Matter
“You want ice, mushrooms, weed?” another tuk-tuk driver asks, for the third time that evening on the street leading to Serendipity Beach. It can seem, at times, that there is a school of English, specifically for drug dealers, in Sihanoukville.
Down the road, merely 30-seconds later, a motorcycle-taxi driver stops and asks the same question.
We chat a bit and I ask what else he has available. He proudly says he has everything, from his bread and butter marijuana and methamphetamine, to heroin and magic mushrooms.
“Don’t you worry about the police? How do you know I won’t go and tell them about you?”
He laughs. “You can tell the police, they already know, it’s no problem.”
It is common knowledge that the police are aware of the drug-dealing and nearby hiding places for narcotics – behind ATMs, and under tuk-tuk and moto seats, for example – and do nothing.
Some local residents allege that some police are complicit, allowing the deals to take place even in alleyways behind police outposts.
An official at a foreign embassy in Phnom Penh recently told Khmer Times that drugs and alcohol are probably the biggest cause of deaths among foreigners in Sihanoukville.
Frequent unexplained deaths of foreigners – often attributed to “heart-attacks” – are unofficially noted as having been caused by cocktails of booze, pharmaceutical drugs and illegal narcotics.
Another diplomat told Khmer Times they were increasingly concerned about what drugs people were taking, and that the drugs people thought they had purchased were frequently a different substance than they thought or mixed with toxic substances.
“There have been a number of cases resulting in deaths after somebody took a drug, expecting something else,” the diplomat said. “Dealers selling heroin in place of cocaine, for example, has caused multiple deaths.”
“It’s really impossible to know exactly what you’re taking down here,” said one local business-owner. “Stay safe and stick to beer,” is his warning to travellers.
Local and expatriate residents frequently speak of cases of people who accidentally became addicted to a drug they did not intend to take. But children here, too, are endangered by a drug trade that has gone largely unchallenged.
Homeless children are increasingly replacing glue-sniffing with smoking methamphetamine – which has become dangerously affordable and accessible, according to child-protection NGO M’lop Tapang.
A National Epidemic
American diplomats are among those warning of increased consumption, trafficking and production of narcotics throughout Cambodia, resulting in a “significant drug problem” that is “worsening and growing.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also expressed alarm about increased trafficking in many Southeast Asian countries. Crackdowns on drug trafficking in China and Thailand have reportedly resulted in an increase in smuggling through the Kingdom.
Residents and business-owners in Sihanoukville have expressed concern about a promised police crackdown that does not appear to have happened, despite some arrests in the summer.
In May, Brigadier General Chuon Narin said he had appointed more officials to deal with Sihanoukville’s “growing drug problem” and spoke of a new “anti-drugs task-force” that would soon start cleaning up the streets.
Evidence of this has been hard to spot, however. Drug-users report little difficulty in getting their product, while dealers brag that police know about them but do nothing. Senior sources say that General Narin is acutely aware of the scale of the problem here – he was an experienced anti-drugs officer in Phnom Penh – but add that he is not making enough progress yet.
“He has been told about the drug-dealing on beach road… He’s aware of it, but seems somewhat incapable of tackling it,” said one local official.
The new chief has inherited a huge challenge and a broken system, with many police officers here “more interested in maintaining the status quo” than enforcing the law, local residents and long-term expatriates say.