Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Jimmie the Knife - 5 February 2012

The old phrase “Putting your arse on the line” took on a whole new meaning in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh recently, when a young American resident was shot on his way home from a bar.

Heading home in the early hours of Sunday morning, Jimmie aged 24, was approaching Norodom Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares from Street 172, when two black SUVs came from behind towards the intersection. He’d had a night out on the tiles in one of Phnom Penh’s popular bar areas, Street 51, home to such establishments as Howie’s Bar, The Heart of Darkness, The Walkabout, Shanghai, and the bars in the market that’s sprung up on the site of the former central police station, where jugs of beer can be had for as little as $2.

What happened next is a little unclear. Jimmie (not his real name) was doubtless intoxicated, and the occupants of the vehicles, drivers and bodyguards of one of the city’s VIPs, though who this person is remains a mystery, have produced differing accounts of events.

Jimmie claims that the second Lexus (black Lexus four-wheel-drives are a dime-a dozen in Phnom Penh) tried to run him over as it cut the corner. He said that it then stopped at the intersection and reversed back towards him causing him to take evasive action. He said he wound up with his hands on the vehicle’s bonnet in a last desperate attempt to prevent the driver charging at him again.

The story from the occupants of the vehicle is somewhat different, though the VIP has not come forward and has not been interviewed. Jimmie, they claimed had thrown a rock at one of the vehicles as it passed by. Another occupant stated that the young pedestrian had struck one of the vehicles with a stick. They said that they had then driven off.

What Jimmie didn’t see were the two guys on the motorcycle who had been following the small convoy. These were additional protection for the VIP, outriders, used to spot trouble such as this.

A combination of testimony has suggested that the pillion passenger dismounted the motorcycle after the other vehicles had left the scene. The passenger then produced an automatic pistol and levelled the weapon in Jimmie’s direction. Jimmie saw the gun and decided to run off, only trouble was the would-be assailant wasn’t giving up so easily, and gave chase and opened fire.

The shooter, who has since come forward once the story made the local papers, claimed that he had fired a warning shot that then hit the ground and ricocheted before hitting Jimmie full in the backside. Trouble is this story has been used before, and all too frequently by armed bodyguards who have become over enthusiastic in their duties, in a country not renowned for accountability under the law.

Warning shots are usually fired into the air, and far from other accounts that Jimmie had attacked the motorcycle, evidence of a wound in the arse would tend to suggest that he was attempting to flee, or, was actually already prone lying on the ground.

After being shot and the assailant left the scene Jimmie managed to make it to one of the bars across Norodom Boulevard where with assistance, he made it to hospital.

On my first stay in Phnom Penh some years ago I recall an incident involving another convoy of some VIP or other and a collision with three young guys on a motorcycle. The car with the VIP quickly left the scene leaving the three motorcyclists on the road. Another vehicle quickly pulled up and a group of bodyguards appeared, pistol-whipped the youngsters to semi-consciousness before one of the guards fired point blank into the back of one of the youths leaving him near dead.

Once Jimmie made it to hospital medical evidence supports a scenario where the weapon had been directly aimed at a fleeing man. Doctors who treated Jimmie at Calmette Hospital, the country’s premier national hospital, have said that the size of the wound and the shape of the bullet when removed would indicate that the shooter had taken deliberate aim. They also said that they thought him “very lucky” not to have suffered more serious damage.

Word of the incident quickly spread among expats and around some of the bars in town, where it was recounted with some mirth. Jimmie is known in a few bars by expats around parts of Phnom Penh. When I first read a report of the incident in The Cambodia Daily I thought immediately of Jimmie as likely to be involved, though the article got his name wrong. I’ve met the guy and he can be described as a pain in the arse.

Someone recently nicknamed him “Hurricane” because of all the damage he leaves in his wake, most of which he’s oblivious to. Basically, he’s ill-equipped to be in Cambodia or most other places for that matter and should be on a plane home. He has never travelled before and this is the first time outside his home country. He strolls about town half-dressed and at night wears his sunglasses upside down on the back of his head.

He told people he regularly carried a knife in Phnom Penh because he thought "people were after him". He has a limited world-view and it’s fair to say, and many do, that he is very immature, and in the eyes of some, was simply an accident waiting to happen.

Well it did that night. Phnom Penh is not really a place to go looking for trouble, especially where rich and powerful locals are concerned. They rarely travel alone, and are usually accompanied by trained guards armed with powerful hand guns, who can be quick, too quick to use them.

The Heart of Darkness, one of the city’s most popular clubs, and usually packed after midnight, has seen a shooting or two.  The sign on the door still reads “no knives, guns or hand grenades allowed.” It was once closed for six months after a dispute between two Cambodians saw one pull a handgun and shoot and seriously wound the other.

While the victim lay bleeding on the floor, bystanders and security guards ushered the perpetrator outside where he promptly got into his vehicle, and then drove up and down Street 51 outside the club for some time waiting for his victim to come outside so he could finish the job.

Many other night spots have bouncers, often off duty police officers who bring their firearms with them to work. Karaoke bars are another establishment which see their fair share of incidents involving firearms.

Several people have suggested that young Jimmie would be better off going home before some other incident befalls him.  So this is about two things; a guy out of his depth and unwilling or unable to adjust, and the rich and powerful who operate to their own rules. If you talk to international agencies in Cambodia the one thing that keeps cropping up is the lack of accountability under the law for those at the top and those who do their bidding.

For Jimme, if you’re going to put your arse on the line, you’re better off doing it with the odds slightly more in your favour.

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