The 18-year-old pool attendant at my gym is gawky, gangly and unusually skinny. No taller than my chin, he has kind of a goofy smile that always accompanies his dependably friendly greeting when we run into each other at the facility.
His was only one of two recent incidents that are symptomatic of rampant injustice in Cambodia.
I got to know the young man — call him Chan — when his job was to clean the equipment on one of the gym’s floors I visit. I since have seen him frequently when he stands outside the glass doors at the entrance of the pool, where he has been assigned for more than a year.
On March 13, four police officers in civilian clothes waited outside the gym before dawn for him to report to work, according to the other employees who are my source for this post. They cuffed and then hustled him into a police car, which then drove away.
It seems that a neighbor had gone to see him and begged him to bite her on the arm as if, he suspected, he had sexually assaulted her. She later went home and told her mother that Chan had raped her.
The rape didn’t happen. Chan didn’t even kiss her, so goes the narrative.
I am not so naïve as to ignore how often acquaintances of a criminal will say that they never expected that person to commit unspeakable felonies. But the possibility approaches zero that this sweet guy — who probably would have difficulty overpowering a four-year-old — is guilty. If you were to meet him, you’d agree. Professionally cynical when I was a journalist, I ordinarily doubt hearsay. Not in this case.
If you live in Cambodia, you learn that false accusations are a common occurrence. You know that payoffs to real victims and lying accusers are routine. To too many individuals, it’s a living.
For the complainant, the extortion obviously was just another way to make some money. The amount certainly beats the $200 a month that the majority of Cambodians are able to earn not even weekly, but monthly, if they are lucky.
The mother of the “victim” — who didn’t undergo a physical examination and never was touched, touched, by Chan — demanded a $4,000 bribe to drop the charges. As is usual, there was a negotiation, but Chan’s parents were able to drive down the demand only to $3,500, a king’s ransom to them.
There is no doubt that Chan’s family borrowed the money from a lender at the spectacularly usurious rates that are, as I have written before, endemic here. They will never recover from the debt. His family is so impoverished that another gym maintenance man, himself poor, pities Chan and shares his breakfast with him daily.
To me, the debt is the basic tragedy in this episode, and I only wish that I could spare enough money to help. I constantly wrestle with the impulse to assist some of the vast number of disadvantaged Cambodians at least in a small way, but I keep coming to the same realization: The chasm between the need among the populace and funds to close the gap are beyond any individual’s, any NGO’s and any foreign or domestic government’s capacity or willingness to make much of a difference.
Personally, I prefer to provide my modest help directly to individuals who need it and not to an organization. But it hurts that I’m not Warren Buffet with enough resources to change the world in which I live.
Perhaps you are wondering why Chan’s family didn’t just fight the charge.
Pending resolution of the case, he would have been incarcerated in a prison that keeps inmates in conditions that define “inhumane,” sometimes for years, awaiting disposition of their case. I urge you to read the account by an Australian who has languished in such a hell charged with espionage after he flew a drone over an unexceptional protest.
Because arrests almost invariably proceed to a foregone conclusion for individuals who are not well connected, there is no assurance that Chan ever would be tried fairly. There is every reason to believe he would be found guilty and imprisoned for years.
The second injustice that’s hard to stomach came to light the same week that Chan was accused. It concerns the driver of a car who was thought to have caused a serious accident, though it is not clear whether the accident, if it occurred at all, was the least bit remarkable. (Local reporters have had difficulty being admitted to the scene or interviewing forthcoming officials in a timely manner.)
A mob showed the driver no mercy, flinging rocks at the university’s professor’s head and slamming the car door on his hand. (Street justice is virtually as common as wood fires in Cambodia; just shout jao! (thief!) when robbed and a throng gives chase.)
Bloodied and unconscious, the educator was flown for better treatment than he could receive in Cambodia to Vietnam, where he seems to have defied death. He remains hospitalized.
There were two arrests initially and then a third. And after the prime minister condemned vigilante justice, the local police chief said he had ordered the arrest of eight additional suspects. At this writing, none of them reportedly has been apprehended two weeks after the attack.
Were bribery and corruption less prevalent, naturally there would be far less poverty in his struggling nation. Arguably, there would be less crime and less violence as well.
As for Chan, he’s back at work!