After the newly promoted national police chief, Gen. Neth Savoeun, set up suggestion boxes and a hotlines for complaints and criticism, rights groups say the initiative is likely to be ineffective.
Surveys show the public has little trust in the ostensibly anonymous initiatives and fear reprisal from police. Instead, people still tend to seek out non-governmental agencies when facing problems.
Lao Monghay, a senior researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission, said the initiative, which followed a verbal order from Neth Savoeun, was “good,” but, “it must have a law and a regulation procedure, an independent body other than police, and investigate the complaints for the public.”
This would allay fears of “revenge from police officers,” he said.
Neth Savoeun declined to comment on the new initiative, but Lt. Gen. Sok Phal, his deputy, said the public was not afraid of police.
“Mr. Lao Monghay doesn’t know about the figures, how many letters, what people complain about, because we haven’t released the figures,” he said. “Why did he claim people were scared? He must be misinformed.”
He referred further questions to Lt. Gen. Keat Chantharith, a spokesman for the national police, who said the boxes could be used for any kind of security report, including of gang members, suspected thieves, drug abuse and abuse of power by police.
“We welcome criticism from all circles,” he said. There have been complaints of police abuse, “but not many,” he said. “We don’t see many acts of abuse by police.”
Rights groups and police both say the hotlines, Nos. 117 and 118, have been used and useful, making calls to police easier.
There are “more reports by phone,” Keat Chantharith said. “As soon as a problem takes place, they call the hotlines. It is faster than police boxes.”
The police boxes are opened once or twice a week.
Neth Savoeun has worked to restore the image of the national police, having replaced the late Hok Lundy six months ago. Police have widely been regarded as operating in a culture of impunity for the rich and powerful and injustice for the weak, including arbitrary arrests.
Under Neth Savoeun’s watch, police cracked down on pawn shops and stolen items, like motorcycles and cell phones; gambling and slot machine operators; illegal sports betting; cock-fighting; and other crimes.
The hotlines and police boxes were meant to include the public in these improvements.
But to gain public trust, Lao Monghay said, Neth Savoeun will need to set up an independent body or let non-governmental groups review the anonymous letters criticizing police abuse.
Such a move would be more fruitful and transparent, he said.
“It is called an internal mechanism,” he said. “There is no external review when the reports come in.”
The national police are drafting bills on rules and regulations for police offers. Lao Monghay suggested that an independent body should be included, particularly for reviewing complaints against police.
“We welcome the idea,” Keat Chantharith said. “But putting the idea into a bill needs to be checked with whether Cambodian law allows it.”
The National Assembly does have a committee for the interior, security, national defense, anti-corruption and public functions, which would include police oversight.
Ny Chakrya, chief of the monitoring section for the local rights group Adhoc, said a good plan without goodwill to enforce it won’t be fruitful.
“These days, and without people pointing it out, we can see flawed police acts,” he said. “People have not believed that their complaints will get them justice. They will still report [police abuse] even without police boxes, as long as they see that justice will prevail and they will be safe.”