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Guns-R-Us Culture In Cambodia Slowly Yields to Rule of Law

Visitors with an itchy trigger finger are being enticed by Cambodia's gun-toting culture. Here, they can pay to let off some steam firing an authentic M-16 or an AK-47. For $15, a Cambodian soldier dressed in full camouflage will let anyone live out a childhood fantasy. And if assault rifles aren't enough, tourists can always fire off a few bursts with a heavy machine gun or a M-79 grenade launcher.

In a country where guns are an integral part of everyday life, it's hardly surprising that they've turned up on Cambodia's tourist circuit. Four years after the United Nations declared a plan to disarm Cambodia, guns are everywhere.

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"The rule of law isn't properly applied yet. So everyone arms themselves," explains a Western legal expert.

Riding through Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, with its bone-rattling boulevards and crumbling colonial architecture, the guns blend in with the dcor. Policemen cradle AK-47s on street corners, and well-off teenagers hide pistols in their pockets when they go out at night.

"There are probably more guns now than there were when the UN left in 1993," says a Western human rights worker. "Almost everybody has a gun."

In the absence of a strong political regime and without effective law enforcement, Cambodia has become a Wild West-style democracy. In many cases, criminals, not ordinary Cambodians, are cashing in on the freedoms. American narcotics agents say Cambodia has become a hub for drug-trafficking and money laundering.

At city restaurants, foreigners order pizzas " l'herbe," which means stuffed full of marijuana. Since June 1995, approximately 67 tons of Cambodian pot have been seized around the world. Experts estimate that the national output of marijuana probably runs into hundreds of tons.

The economy has a mafia feel to it. Among Phnom Penh's most outstanding landmarks are its casinos and banks. In a nation where the annual per capita gross domestic product hovers around $240, the presence of 28 commercial banks has prompted allegations that some are fronts for dirty money.

"It's not unusual to see people depositing suitcases full of $100 bills," says one long-term foreign resident.

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But amid the gloom, there are some positive signs. "This year, Phnom Penh will graduate its first batch of locally trained lawyers," says Francis James of Legal Aid Cambodia, a nongovernmental organization here. "There are plenty of laws here. The major problem is lack of qualified personnel," says Mr. James, a American attorney who has trained 25 public defenders. "The situation is definitely better."

To try to rein in rampant gun use, the government has announced a plan to register gun ownership starting March 31. Cambodia's Deputy Police Chief Yeng Marady says the move will "help prevent crime throughout the country." He adds, however, that high-ranking government officials and members of the business community who have made large contributions to the government would be exempt from the plan.

In the meantime, Cambodia's rich and powerful are taking no chances. Most prefer to see and not be seen, viewing the world from behind tinted windows and heavily armed bodyguards.

In a nation that has known little but war for decades, bodyguards are apparently easy to come by. So much so, that many businessmen seem to be going overboard. At a disco in Phnom Penh, the owners felt obliged to set limits. A sign outside the entrance reads: "No more than two bodyguards (only in civilian clothes) without firearms will be admitted."

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