Parallel U
pt. II

Number 23–Psar Chas

Last week a couple of hapless would be thieves thought they could beat the odds and held up a gold jewelry store adjacent to Psar Chas, or old market, which sits a block from my house. Immediately they were surrounded by other gold sellers and in spite of wielding guns and before the police could intervene, one was beaten to death on the spot. Most police don’t carry guns and they tend to be as afraid of such furious mobs as the neer-do-wells ought to.

Besides, justice being what it is in Cambodia – pretty sketchy at best – they probably figure it’s best to stay out of the way and let the momentum of the moment do its down and dirty deed. However the regularity of these scenes of instant retribution – every few weeks somewhere in the country – had become embarrassing enough to spur the government to goad the police into doing their job, so in this case they did manage to save one of them.

But that anecdote brings up a couple of fascinating sidebars. One is that the police tend to be remarkably tolerant and forbearing. Three or four traffic police are stationed at every stop light; well, standing under the shade of a nearby tree. They only wave a driver down when the mood hits and seldom for any real infraction. It’s mostly to pick up a little salary supplement. It’s usually just 500 to 1000 riels or 12 to 25 cents; I mean, they only make 30 bucks a month, certainly not enough to live on. Stopping a driver often brings on a whining, complaining, irate and argumentative reaction.

The traffic police rarely react unbecoming to the most professional and forbearing civil servant – not saying they don’t get their pocket change. I also witnessed a jaw dropping scene of tolerance and gentleness at my local police station – each commune (there are 76 in Phnom Penh) has its own storefront police post – in the process of arresting or at least bringing in a young man. He wasn’t fighting the police, but he was resisting with all he had. He was clinging to the accordion gate at the storefront’s entrance as they were trying to get him into the station; the police would pry one hand off and he’d grab it with the other; pleading, begging, arguing all the while. This went on for a few minutes (or seemed like it) until one cop got frustrated enough to use just sufficient enough force to pry him loose – they were getting a little embarrassed in the face of a crowd of onlookers.

In Portland? That young fella would’ve been pummeled, kicked, stomped, bloodied, beaten. Well maybe not in every instance but it’s happened often enough. Moreover, when you consider that only a short time ago a 68 year old woman so frightened a burly cop when she reached for her ignition key in a traffic stop that she was dragged from her car, thrown to the ground and cuffed. The cop said her turn signals weren’t working, she attempted to turn on the ignition to show him they were. Of course she was black, can you imagine a white woman driving a Beemer being treated that way? And disgustingly enough, the police chief, the mayor and city council all agreed that the cop was justified – gee, you never know with these geezers nowadays, she could have tried to escape, led the police on a high speed chase. Never know what terrible thing might’ve happened if he’d not been on his guard, actually let a little humanity creep into his official response.

Ineptitude, and poor or non-existent training no doubt enter into the equation here but I often wonder if kid-glove treatment by Cambodian police hasn’t something to do with a national psyche that’s been so traumatized by cruelty and depravity that they just can’t bring themselves to use force. I wish I had experienced life here before Pol Pot. Did they swing from tolerance to the depths of inhumanity and back to tolerance? Were they much different before? Obviously both must’ve always been there to some degree.

Meanwhile contrasts abound. On the periphery of Psar Chas you’ll find dozens of money changers, in places as much as a dozen all in a row. Each sits in back of a little display case with a sign showing the dollar/riel rate for the day and lots of money in plain view. They don’t keep their US tens or twenties on display but add it up and, by the standards of many Cambodians, there’ll be big money within arm’s reach. All seemingly without defense against robbers – no bars across the glass, no armed guards. All they have for protection is their numbers, the crowds of people everywhere and the specter of instant and ultimate retribution.

A week ago, walking home at 11 pm from my favorite watering hole I passed the nearby greenstrip at a place where several vendors had their itinerant nightspots set up. These are super funky affairs with little plastic stools and ramshackle tables where various drinks and treats are sold. There really isn’t much drunkenness here even though local spirits are pretty cheap. I was about 200 feet beyond it when I heard a thud. My ears aren’t so great; it didn’t strike me as a gunshot but the way people were scattering, and I too as some fled in my direction, it couldn’t have been anything else. It was just bluster, I would’ve heard about later if it had involved a casualty. The police generally don’t patrol at night, they retreat to their storefronts where they have cots set up to sleep. They are there if you need them.

I witnessed a similar incident several months ago, except in much closer proximity, although no shot was fired that time. Caused quite a stir nevertheless at the bar I was in. A gun was brandished across the street from my outdoor table – it was a local to local altercation – and everybody, nearly everybody, ducked for cover.

All this and I still haven’t gotten to Psar Chas. It’s a one-and-a-half acre warren of low roofed metal shacks, with the narrow walkways in between serving as drainage during monsoon torrents, where you can buy a flabbergasting array of goods or services.