PHNOM PENH — The municipal council recently hung a neon sign across Sisowath Quay, on the capital’s popular riverfront. “Phnom Penh — The Charming City,” it boasted.
No reason was given for this sudden outburst of civic pride, but it might have been a wishful attempt to attract a better class of visitors.
About 400 meters from the sign is the Cadillac Bar. It’s here that Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, co-founder of the file-sharing Web site The Pirate Bay, dined out while hiding from a Swedish arrest warrant. He was deported on Monday and sent home to serve a prison term for copyright infringements.
A pasty-faced computer geek with bad facial hair, the 27-year-old was cut out of a different cloth than the hardened criminals and sexual predators who typically drift here, earning Cambodia its reputation as a sunny country for shady characters.
The place appeals to all manner of crooks and gunrunners, as well as the occasional Islamic terrorist or Triad boss. In July the architect Patrick Devillers made headlines by voluntarily leaving his home in Phnom Penh and returning to China to give evidence in the sensational case of Bo Xilai, the former Communist boss who fell from grace amid a barrage of corruption charges.
Before that, there was the merchant of mercy killings. Roger Graham, an American who came to Cambodia in 2003, was deported three years later for enlisting customers in his assisted-suicide program through a do-it-yourself Web site. Even after his arrest, he said, “All I want to do is to run a little cafe and live the rest of my life in peace. I intend to die here.”
Others have no intention of dying here but do, like some of the drug addicts who come because prescription pills and methamphetamines are available and cheap.
The place’s ultimate appeal, though, is its well-documented culture of impunity. This is a country where the then president of the Chamber of Commerce, Theng Bunma, can complain to an airline about bad service by shooting out the tire of a plane with a pistol and never have to worry about fallout. A few months later he pulled out a gun inside a plane in order to delay takeoff so as to wait for friends who were late boarding.
Life on the lam here is even better if you have connections or money. Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and has lived in exile since being found guilty of corruption, used to serve a special economic adviser to his friend Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia.
The Russian businessman Alexander Trofimov came to Cambodia in 2005 and started building a $300 million tourist resort on Snake Island, off the southwest coast, entrenching himself among the “Khmer Riche,” the highest echelons of Cambodia’s elite. That didn’t spare him prison time after he was arrested, in 2007, on 17 charges of sexually abusing minors, including a six-year-old. But last December, just four years into his sentence, he obtained a royal pardon and was freed.
Soon, though, Trofimov was found with a girl believed to be 11 or 12. This proved too much, even for Cambodia, and he was deported in June.
Beware the vagaries of doing business with the Cambodian government. After all, if a criminal can buy himself freedom and protection with money, money can also buy them away from him.
No sooner were the Swedish authorities getting ready to take delivery of Svartholm Warg than Stockholm announced a $59 million foreign aid package to promote democracy in Cambodia.