Sat, Nov 24, 2001 - Page 1 News List

Cambodians grab for one last beer before bar closure


Cambodian drinkers were flocking to their favorite haunts for one last beer yesterday as police geared-up to enforce the nationwide closure of all nighttime entertainment establishments and bars. The radical decision was apparently prompted by an incident involving Prime Minister Hun Sen's nephew.

The order to close by 6pm yesterday was issued by the prime minister on Tuesday as part of a crackdown on legal and illegal bars which have become a haven for prostitution, drugs and organized crime.

Bar owners said they had received documents from the authorities demanding that they "close voluntarily" and have been confronted by police who insisted the prime minister's orders would be carried out.

"Most are signing because they have no choice. If there's any chance of reopening your bar later, then you have to volunteer to close now," said one bar manager who declined to be named.

Targets include Phnom Penh's famed nightspot, The Heart Of Darkness, the drinking strip along the Tonle Sap riverfront and other favored spots for expats and tourists, Sharky's and Martini's.

No details have been given on how long the closures would last and, in issuing the order, Hun Sen said crime was damaging national traditions, hurting Cambodia's prestige and heightening concerns among parents.

Shootouts among bodyguards of this country's elite are not uncommon at popular nightspots. In one notorious incident, a man was shot dead in a karaoke bar after a fight erupted between two men who wanted to sing the same song.

About three weeks ago Hun Sen was extremely upset after learning his nephew was involved in a drunken bar shooting after being told by his parents that he was too young to marry his girlfriend.

Critics argue that the laws are draconian and indiscriminate and will throw thousands of people out of work, including some 30,000 women, as well as hurting the government's ability to raise desperately needed tax revenue.

However, Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon said social values were more important than tax from alcohol and impact would be minimal.

"The closing down of karaoke bars, bars, and nightclubs will not impact on the government's ability to raise revenue," he said.

Cambodia has embarked on an ambitious attempt to clean up the capital through infrastructure projects and eliminating the seedier side of the city.

"We are 70 percent sure that we will close," one bar owner spokesman said. "But this doesn't make any sense as there are many bars, including ours, which are legitimate. We don't have any fights, or prostitutes."

The order does not affect restaurants or massage parlors, prompting speculation that nightclubs operating as fronts for brothels will simply reinvent themselves as food houses or advertise as massage specialists.

According to the Cambodian Daily at least 20 nightclubs and karaoke bars in the northeast town of Siem Reap were planning to turn themselves into massage parlors.

It quoted first deputy governor of Siem Reap, Un Oeurn, as saying police would monitor the parlors to ensure they were operating as legitimate businesses.

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