Every time a wealthy or well-connected Cambodian is accused of a crime, the same questions surface: will they be arrested and prosecuted, and how does it serve the interests of the government?

In recent weeks, those were the questions asked in the case of 16-year-old Yin Khun Mey, alias Yin Mana, who is accused of a hit-and-run on March 26 while driving in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district.

Yin Mana, who is from a wealthy family, is alleged to have fled and abandoned her father’s SUV after running down 23-year-old scholarship student Dum Rida, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Analysts say the case is symbolic of not only widespread mistrust of Cambodian law enforcement, but also of a justice system where there are separate rules for the wealthy and ordinary people. 

The news of yet another hit-and-run, which are all too common in Cambodia, garnered the attention of the public after footage of the accident was leaked onto social media. The harrowing CCTV recording appears to show Yin Mana speeding through an intersection in a Range Rover before crashing into Dum Rida, who was riding slowly on a motorcycle.

President of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a ceremony at the party headquarters to mark the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the party in Phnom Penh June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX2ILH9
Many poor people see Prime Minister Hun Sen as their only hope of getting justice as they have lost faith in the police and the courts. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Public anger

The scale of public anger led Prime Minister Hun Sen to wade into the debate days later, saying he had seen the video. He called the driver “amoral” and instructed the culprit to turn themselves in to police.

Only then, three days after the incident on March 29, did Yin Mana’s father take her to a local police station, where she was charged with “driving recklessly, negligence, carelessness and killing others” under the country’s Traffic Law. If prosecuted, she faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to US$3,700.

Political analyst Sreysrors Ly said the public’s faith in social justice was getting worse, and a distrust of law enforcement was “rooted in Cambodians’ perception that justice is a rare thing for poor and ordinary people.”

It wasn’t surprising, then, that social media became a vehicle for Cambodians to come out and demand justice for the victim of this incident, she added. 

There are few surveys on the thoughts of ordinary people on this issue, but one small report by researchers at the University of Cambodia some years ago found that the majority of respondents said they had “‘not much” trust in the police to investigate crimes, while about 56% of respondents said the police and courts had failed to take action after a criminal report was filed. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that few Cambodians think a crime will be resolved by the authorities, so most people do not even bother reporting criminal acts. The fact that many police ask for a financial “tip” before even launching an investigation prevents many poorer Cambodians from approaching them.

The Kampong Speu provincial police had to deny an accusation last year that they released suspects who paid $200 for cases to be dropped.

The distrust that justice will be handed out is especially strong when someone wealthy and politically-connected is accused of being the perpetrator. More often than not, nothing comes of an investigation.

In 2014, for instance, an Irish national was killed in central Phnom Penh in a hit-and-run incident, yet the culprit was never brought to trial. It was alleged the driver was the daughter of a deputy tourism police chief.   

On Cambodia’s roads, even royalty are not spared. Cambodian Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s wife Ouk Phalla was killed in a road accident in Preah Sihanouk province on June 17, 2018, and the Prince was badly injured. Photo: AFP

Unsafe roads

Social media and Khmer-language newspapers are awash with stories on the latest traffic accidents in Cambodia, where at least 1,900 people died in car crashes in 2017 alone – about five people a day. Traffic accidents are thought to be one of the leading causes of death in Cambodia each year. 

Ear Chariya, the founding director of the Institute for Road Safety, a non-profit organization, wrote in The Phnom Penh Post newspaper in 2016 that one in every four car crashes in Cambodia was a hit-and-run, and almost half of them resulted in fatalities.

“Because hit-and-run drivers do not stop to help the injured person, or to call for emergency medical services immediately, the probability of severe injuries and even fatalities is increased,” he wrote.

However, one reason so many drivers flee the scene of an accident is they fear they will be beaten by onlookers if they stay around after an accident, while angry onlookers feel that if they do not mete out rough justice, the perpetrator won’t be punished, analysts say. 

A university professor was almost beaten to death by a mob in March 2018 after he knocked down a motorcyclist in Phnom Penh and fled the scene. Chased by onlookers, he was pulled from his car and beaten. His injuries were so severe that he had to be sent to a hospital in Vietnam for treatment. 

“If they do not [drive away], they will be beaten by the public … The public does not believe in the justice system so they seek justice by punishing offenders by themselves,” said Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger and frequent contributor to the youth-centered group Politikoffee.

Sereiboth agrees that social justice and impunity are still major problems in Cambodia, but what the case of Yin Mana also demonstrates is that when ordinary Cambodians are the victims of “the rich and the powerful, they always seek justice from Hun Sen and seek his intervention,” he said.

“He is the last hope in this country when [the poor] face problems and cannot find justice from local authorities,” Sereiboth added.

In a 2017 report, the International Commission of Jurists stated that “the rule of law is virtually absent from the Cambodian justice system.” The largest problem facing the system, it added, “is the lack of independent and impartial judges and prosecutors.”

This is politically effective for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since the courts can be counted on to do its bidding. Supreme Court President Dith Munty, a member of the CPP’s elite Permanent Committee, presided over the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in late 2017, which effectively left the CPP without any competition in last year’s general election. It won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, making Cambodia a de-facto one-party state.

But because the justice system is under the thumb of the CPP, analysts say that judges, investigators and prosecutors are often promoted for their loyalty, not competency.

It also means that the CPP can prioritize whichever cases they want, with Hun Sen, who has been Prime Minister since 1985, playing the role of an historic king to whom subjects bring their complaints and depend on his patronage. 

Rumors spead quickly

It allows him to boost his populist credentials, commentators say, as he portrays himself as the sole protector and arbitrator of ordinary Cambodians.

However, the intrigue in the Yin Mana case did not end with Hun Sen’s intervention. Almost as soon as she turned herself into police and was charged, others rumors started spreading on social media that either she had never been arrested in the first place or that she had been swiftly released from detention, with many claiming that yet again the wealthy were escaping justice.

Indeed, the ferocity of the rumors – mostly incorrect – revealed the anger and mistrust many ordinary Cambodians feel towards the justice system, analysts said.   

Pich Sros, the president of the Cambodian Youth Party, which is closely aligned with the ruling party, took it upon himself to personally visit Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciaire prison – a jail for affluent detainees – to make sure Yin Mana was still in detention. She was, he wrote on social media.

A file photo of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh where many high profile detainees spend their time. Photo: AFP

Even after this, distrusting social media users went on another attack, with some alleging prison officials were helping her escape detention and flee the country. Others angrily questioned why, on April 8, she was allowed to be transferred to the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital for medical treatment.

Nouth Savna, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, told local media Yin Mana had been suffering from bronchitis and defended her transfer to the hospital.

“It’s not that she was born into a rich family. She is very ill … We cannot allow someone to die when their illness could be treated,” he told local media. 

For Sreysrors Ly, the way social media has been harnessed by the public to “pressure the government to take action” is striking. However, she added, this does not mean that an angry public acting through Facebook is “an effective tool to solve [the] problems” of Cambodia’s failing justice system.

Indeed, one wider implication is that if crimes are only to be properly investigated because of public pressure, quite clearly not every crime will garner the attention of most people on social media.

Doubts linger

But the far more endemic problem is that if the justice system only acts because of public pressure, this requires the public to remain interested throughout the entire investigation, from arrest to conviction.   

But it is most probable that the public’s attention, in this case, will diminish in the coming weeks and when Yin Mana actually goes before the courts, there will be much less interest in the outcome of the trial.

Some commentators think the public’s focus has already moved onto other issues, while others doubt Yin Mana will actually be prosecuted since her family has already handed over US$70,000 as a compensation payment the victim’s family, who initially demanded $200,000 in compensation.

Those with a relatively long memory can recall the case of Sok Bun, which bears a striking resemblance to the Yin Mana case.

In mid-2015, the real estate tycoon was filmed violently assaulting TV personality Ek Socheat, better known as Ms Sasa, at a Phnom Penh nightclub. When footage of his attack was leaked onto social media, it also created a public outcry.

Sok Bun tried to escape justice by going into hiding in Singapore and offering the victim a large financial payment if she dropped the case. At first, Ms Sasa rejected the settlement and chided him for trying to use “money to buy” freedom. 

Later, however, she dropped her charges and reports suggested this might have been because of the $100,000 she received in compensation from Sok Bun in an extrajudicial deal.

But pressure from the public forced the government’s hand and, after demands from Hun Sen, Sok Bun returned to Cambodia months after the attack. Yet much of the public invective had died down by the time of his trial and, despite being sentenced to three years in prison, he was only ordered to serve 10 months in jail.

A representative of a women’s rights NGO said at the time that the court verdict was akin to “promoting violence against women in Cambodia.” 

Also, many believed Sok Bun spent much of his jail time in a private room in a hospital receiving treatment for kidney complaints and depression. Prisoners are only legally allowed to be transferred to a hospital if they are suffering from life-threatening illnesses, however.

As for the Yin Mana case, Hun Sen was correct when he said “this tragedy is not only for the two families, but it affected all our citizens … I hope this experience will be remembered and taken as a lesson.”

The problem for him, however, is that the lesson many ordinary Cambodians took from it was not the one the prime minister wanted them to learn.