Interview with a gangster

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 1.07.17 PMI carried out this interview in the course of investigating magical tattoos – what they were, why people had them. I was told that the most likely people to have them were police, gangsters, and soldiers. So I went and found myself a gangster.

Not really a gangster any more, in fact a very nice guy with a touching story. He’s 37 years old, and came to PP from the provinces with his family aged 8. At that time (about 1985) PP was a wild and dangerous place. Aged 13 (about 1990) he left school over his father’s strong objections and joined a gang on Riverside, the tourist strip along the Tonle Sap river. Got tattoos when he was about 16, to attract girls. Also got some amulets to make himself invulnerable to knives and to make himself brave. You can just see a tattoo at the very top of his singlet.

The gang robbed and intimidated everyone on Riverside – vendors, shopkeepers, tourists. Fought other gangs with knives, knuckledusters, bike-chains. The police were afraid of them. Boss of the gang was named Kmao, a very violent young man afraid of nobody.

One day there was a major battle with another gang. The other side had guns, Kmao’s side didn’t. Two of Kmao’s side were shot. Our friend had to jump in the river and swim for the far bank, because the enemy were searching for Kmao’s gang up and down Riverside and would kill him if they caught him. Out in the river he promised that if he survived he’d leave the gang and start a new life. And he did.

That was many years ago. Now he drives a tuktuk. All his friends from that time are either dead, or in jail, or driving tuktuks. Several have become monks, and one is an abbot. He bitterly regrets his wasted youth – he has no education, just a tuktuk driver. He was almost crying by the time I finished the interview, being forced to remember the past. I felt a bit guilty.

Phnom Penh gangster

HangmanA Phnom Penh gangster. Taken on the balcony of a room behind the Old Market (Psar Chas), overlooking street 110. “Gangster” has a specific meaning, essentially petty criminals specialising in bag-snatching and burglary. Distinguished by tattoos like this one – anyone who has a tattoo like this has marked himself off from normal respectable society. Usually, of course, the tattoo is covered by a shirt. “Gangsters” tend to have brief lives, much of it spent in jail. If people catch them committing a crime the mob’ll beat them to death – sometimes the police try to save them, sometimes not, but most often they simply don’t arrive.

The gangs are violent – this from a Phnom Penh post article in 2010:

“Earlier this month a student was killed and others suffered serious injuries after fights against rival gangs in the centre of the capital, and samurai swords are still the weapon of choice for the gangs. The fighting is brutal and the injuries horrific, but the authorities do not seem to be able to stop it.”

The article makes some very good points about what leads kids to join gangs, but essentially it strikes me as the inevitable result of a society and economy that can’t provide employment, recreation, or even much family life for its young people.

Interesting article here about life in the poorer parts of the city – mentions gangs and much else, though nothing in depth.