Sihanoukville’s already unpopular traffic police are taking further hits to their reputation this week as they begin to enforce the controversial new traffic law, which has seen increased fines, drivers “re-educated” by the roadside and many vehicles impounded around the Kingdom since it came into effect last week.
Traffic officers here also face renewed accusations that they unfairly and disproportionately target foreigners over Khmers.
In Cambodia’s most prominent coastal resort, traffic police are frequently regarded by many as corrupt and inefficient, as well as an obstacle to the development of tourism. Others argue however, that they’re simply trying to do a difficult and underpaid job and are routinely faced with dismissive expatriates who happily disregard many of Cambodia’s traffic laws.
A controversial clause in the Kingdom’s legislature, which essentially forbids driving without a Khmer driving license, remains a constant source of heated debated among expat communities here.
Khmer Times has previously written in depth about traffic officers in Sihanoukville running scams that actively targeted foreigners, expatriates and tourists, with or without driving licenses.
Some targeted have said they’d been shaken down for up to $50 whilst others said they’d had their perfectly legal documents confiscated and had to buy them back from corrupt officials.
One doctor told Khmer Times of how a patient had the contents of her pockets emptied and stolen by traffic police as she urgently sought to attend a nearby hospital.
“It’s unethical, short-sighted and just plain greedy for these officers to supplement their pay with bribes,” said one tourist visiting from London recently, shortly after he said he had been stung for $20 because he didn’t have a Cambodian driving license.
“It made me not want to come back. The authorities should pay their police force a wage that would deter corruption.”
Many drivers have also reported having to pay fines for offenses they simply didn’t commit, while Khmer residents in Sihanoukville are, according to many, routinely stopped and “taxed” by traffic cops who collect fees in particular areas.
Brigadier General Chuon Narin has previously expressed concern and “disappointment” about the professionalism of his traffic police, while officials in Phnom Penh promised revisions to traffic laws and policing that would improve these issues.
But one of the loudest complaints against the traffic cops here, and one that many are concerned still isn’t being addressed, is that police prefer to target foreigners for larger fines and because they have a much greater chance of not having a Khmer driving license.
Many foreigners here argue that this isn’t fair and indicates a level of corruption and profiteering, especially when motorcycle rentals are so actively marketed to clueless visitors as a viable alternative to overpriced tuk-tuks.
The chief of police himself told Khmer Times in May that his traffic officers “must only apply the law” and focus on stopping drivers who had actually committed an offence.
In November and early December, Khmer Times again monitored a number of traffic police checkpoints around the city on multiple occasions to see how officers were “applying the law” as promised by General Narin, back in May.
Over one combined 12-hour period, officers were seen to apply Cambodian traffic regulations incredibly selectively.
Despite representing only a fraction of road-users, foreign drivers were far more likely to be pulled over, regardless of having committed an offense or not and usually for no discernible reason.
At one police outpost in the city one evening, during a 60-minute period, cops pulled over 400 percent more foreigners than they did Khmers, actively ignoring those who were blatantly breaking laws in favor of targeting the minority of tourists and expatriates.Enforcement of New Law
Results from the first week of enforcement in Sihanoukville appear inconclusive. Although many report that it has been widely-enforced, any substantial difference isn’t yet clear.
“There are still hundreds of people riding around without a helmet on or using the phone, or down the wrong side of the road…” reported one expatriate.
“It’s difficult to see if anything will change,” said another. “If it does, it will take more time.”
Meanwhile however, some Khmer-language media outlets have controversially reported that most Cambodians are diligently following the new law, swiftly resulting in roads that are “in a much better state.”
Police in Sihanoukville are, according to news reports, “focusing on foreigners” who have “yet to respect the right to drive [a vehicle].”
But according to the deputy commissioner of National Police, Him Yan, between 80 and 90 percent of road-users in the Kingdom are still unaware of the new traffic law.
New Law: Friend or Foe?
While Khmer Times hasn’t been able to confirm with traffic police officials in Sihanoukville the exact numbers of vehicles that have been seized so far since the new laws came into effect, some Khmer media outlets have reported that “hundreds” of bikes have been impounded.
Some expatriates and business-owners have confirmed seizures, reporting that bikes had been impounded for “not being properly registered” while hotel owners complained that guests had been stopped and had their rented bike taken by police.
While foreigners and expatriates in Sihanoukville continue to monitor the actions of controversial traffic cops, aspects of the newly-introduced traffic law should make them feel more secure, according to corruption monitors.
Any payable fines, for example, should no longer be payable to police officers directly by the road-side, which regularly opened up the system to corruption, according to critics.
Drivers will now be required to pay the fines at the provincial police commissioner’s office within 30 days of the offense, a change that has been welcomed by the Kingdom’s Anti-Corruption Unit boss, Om Yentieng.