This guy tried to steal my friend’s purse at a bar the other night. It was the first time I’d dealt with theft since I’ve been in Cambodia, and it was kind of a jarring experience. We caught him before anything went missing and he tried to slip away through the main entrance. People followed yelling jau, jau (thief), standard procedure when a thief is caught.
In order to make his escape the jau needed to run a gauntlet of motodops loitering outside the bar, all of whom eagerly took a swing at him as he struggled to get away. I kept yelling for someone to call the police, but the motodops decided mob violence was the most appropriate punishment. I took a photo thinking I could show it to the cops if they ever showed up, but no one was interested in getting the police involved. Actually, even if they were around I doubt they would’ve done anything.
The motodops were furious that myself and a couple others would try to stop the beating. They threw their hats in the dirt in frustration as the thief limped off and disappeared down a dark alley. One guy fired up his moto and roared off down the street screaming jau jau, marshaling other motodops to continue the hunt. Cambodians are normally the most friendly, docile people and this outburst of rage was bizarre.
So I did a little google research into what happened that night and came across a UN human rights report on street retribution in Cambodia. It was dated 2002 and described a growing epidemic of savage beatings and sometimes murders when a thief is caught. Mob violence can form spontaneously, and even accusing someone of theft is frequently akin to a death sentence. The accused has no chance to defend himself, and in many cases the police are absent or turn a blind eye. Things have probably improved since 2002, but it evidently hasn’t disappeared.
The thief escaped battered and missing a few teeth, a small price to pay for what could have been much worse.