Cambodia school siege underlines kingdom’s struggle to recover from war

PHNOM PENH – A school siege which led hostage-takers to kill a Canadian toddler has underlined the struggle Cambodia still faces in recovering from decades of war.

Sucked into the Indochinese conflict of the 1960s and early ’70s, wracked by civil war and then devastated by the 1975-1979 genocidal Khmer Rouge regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million, Cambodia suffered unrest until 1998.

Today an undercurrent of violence simmers in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Mob killings of thieves are not unusual, sexual assaults have reached epidemic levels and other violent crime is relentlessly showcased in the local press.

"Here in Cambodia since the 1970s war, violence has been a part of our daily lives," Kek Galabru, head of local rights group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, told AFP.

"For even the smallest things, we solve problems with violence."

Local kidnappings used to be frequent in the kingdom but dwindled about three years ago when the government tried harder to attract tourists, she said.

Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries, where the gap is growing between a flamboyant but tiny rich elite and the desperately poor, who mostly work in agriculture. The kingdom has virtually no industrial base.

"In Cambodia now, you don’t have much of a middle class. You have the new rich — the very rich — and with their cars and houses, they show that they are rich," Galabru said.

Expatriate aid workers and those in the expanding tourism industry centred in Siem Reap — the location of the siege and the gateway to tourist magnet Angkor Wat — also typically earn many times the salaries of Cambodians.

Foreigners are rarely targeted for attack, but that changed last Thursday when at least four men armed with a gun stormed an international school, taking about 30 young children from at least 14 countries hostage.

Police are still investigating the motive. Witnesses were baffled by how the violence unfolded and said the men seemed to lack a coherent plan when they entered the school.

During initial interrogation, Chea Sokhon, 23, told police he had been infuriated when the South Korean for whom he worked as a driver slapped him.

In revenge, police say he told them he wanted to murder the children. He had picked up a gun in Phnom Penh — where weapons are easy to obtain — but the plan went haywire when they could not find the children at the school.

The attackers were quickly surrounded by police, and seeking a quick getaway, demanded money, more weapons and a car, killing two-year-old Canadian Maxim Michalik to show they meant business.

As they attempted to leave the school with children in the van, police overpowered the vehicle and the angry crowd severely beat the four, ending a seven-hour stand-off which grabbed world headlines.

"This shows the problems we have in society. You don’t solve problems with violence like this. If he was unhappy, he should have talked with his employer," said Galabru, who conceded that abuse of home-workers was another problem the poor often endure.

More than a third of Cambodia’s 13 million people survive on less than a dollar a day, meaning that working for the rich as maids, drivers and guards for around 60 US dollars a month is an attractive prospect for many.

The human rights worker said the hostage crisis also highlighted the need for Cambodian police to be better trained in handling intense situations, reflecting the complaint of one father of a child at the school.

"It could happen anywhere in the world," the father said a day after the tragedy.

"The thing is here, you cannot trust the police to deal with it properly. I think in a modern country, there wouldn’t have been any injuries."

Nevertheless, Hong Kong-based political and economic risk consultant Robert Broadfoot told AFP he did not expect the siege tragedy to have an impact on expatriates coming to Cambodia.

"Fortunately the types of people who go to Cambodia for postings are people who can put this kind of tragedy into the proper perspective," he said, speaking by telephone.

"This is just a reminder that security is something you’ve got to look at. You can’t take it for granted."

A Phnom Penh-based diplomat told AFP that Cambodia has moved ahead since the war years, and violence can happen anywhere.

"But the siege does highlight that there are various issues that Cambodia has yet to fully grapple with," the diplomat said. "These include things such as unemployment, poverty and how it deals with the outside world," he said, warning that such incidents were "likely to again crop up in the future".