The Cambodian Customs Department expects to buy 10 patrol boats to bolster its under-powered fleet and help combat increased wet-season smuggling of gasoline on the country’s waterways.
Customs Director Pen Siman estimates that during the rainy season, $1 million worth of illegal gasoline comes into Cambodia each month via the rivers.
“We always have measures to prevent such actions,” he said Tuesday. “But they are not effective. We do not have enough boats to patrol the entire spread of the flood.”
The new boats will increase the anti-smuggling fleet from four to 14 vessels. The new boats are being purchased from Vietnam and Thailand at an estimated total cost of $250,000 to $300,000. They are expected to arrive in Cambodia in August.
High water lets smugglers navigate Cambodia’s maze-like waterways in boats instead of carrying gasoline overland through the difficult terrain of eastern Cambodia, according to customs officials.
“We have two obstacles to cracking down on gasoline smuggling,” Pen Siman said. “When the rainy season starts, the smuggling starts from Vietnam. When the dry season begins, it is brought from Thailand through provinces connected to the Thai border.”
Finance Ministry officials estimate the government routinely loses $800,000 a month to gasoline smuggling, particularly from Thailand. Major border crossings have been closed to large petroleum trucks but the smuggling problem persists with smugglers using motorbikes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has several times asked for measures to reduce fuel smuggling. Fuel company officials and some industry analysts have suggested the government lower the tax on imported gasoline—now almost as costly as the per barrel price of fuel—to curb the practice.
Lowering the tariff—and therefore the cost of legitimately purchased gasoline—would ruin the market for smugglers who are able to undercut commercial fuel companies, officials claim.
Van Sarun, deputy customs chief for Battambang province, said soldiers take gasoline through Pailin and Kam Rieng and Phnom Proek districts to Battambang town.
“They ask us not to take tax from their gasoline because they need money for breakfast during their temporary stay in town,” Van Sarun said. “Because of understanding, and worrying about security, we close our eyes and let them bring it into town.”
Van Sarun characterized most of the smuggling as small shipments. He said Jeeps might carry 300 liters of gasoline.
“When we do catch them, we take their gasoline to the office and make them pay tax,” Van Sarun said. “We only instruct them not to do it any more.”
Tom Vai, deputy chief of the Judicial Police in Kandal province, said small businessmen carry perhaps 100 liters from Vietnam at night on motorbikes.
“The villagers along the border always tell us they do this to feed their children,” he said.
“It is hard for them to do any other business when they are so far away from towns.”