Bribes, Smuggling a Way of Life on Thai Border

poipet-aranyaprathet border checkpoint – Under the bridge spanning the Thai-Cambodian border, Buth Sorn tied a bundle of shirts around her granddaughter’s torso and set her running through the weeds and sewage.

It’s a 30-minute dash past border police and into the market on the Thai side, where the 5-year-old can unload the smuggled secondhand clothes.

“When police try to arrest us, we run into the sewage piles,” Buth Sorn, 55, said. “Kids are better because the police go easier on them.”

The Thai-Cambodian Friend­ship Bridge is the lifeline for Poipet, where most people work as porters carrying everything from used tires to fish sauce across the border. But payoffs to police cut deep into small profits and have turned many to smuggling.

As trade rumbled across the bridge last weekend, two dozen clothes smugglers were taking the illicit route below in plain view. They trudge through the muck excreted by the nine casinos here, but they say it makes life easier: Pay one bribe to Cambodian police, and then try to avoid the Thais.

Appearing twice their actual weight, the smugglers bind clothes around their legs and put on several layers of garments before making the trek down dirt paths.

Smugglers who are nimble and lucky can return home at night with as much as $4 by bringing used clothes from the Poipet markets into Thailand.

Smugglers who are caught, like 30-year-old Im Touch was last week, are beaten.

Thai police stopped her and struck her with a stick, she said the blows to her bruised legs and shoulders had been cushioned by the cargo.

They have an informal agreement with police to wear the clothes and not carry them.

“If we just carry it, they try to chase us,” said 17-year-old Nuth Oeun. She pulled on a fifth pair of jeans as a Cambodian officer stalked overhead with a twisted clothes-hanger in hand.

“If you hide it, they take it as respect,” she said.

Simultaneously, on the bridge, and also in plain view, police were taking bribes. Cambodians pushing wooden carts laden with goods paid customs officials, then moved forward 10 meters and paid Camcontrol.

“They try to squeeze blood out of feces. If I had any energy I’d kick them,” muttered one woman after throwing down her load of plastic stools to pay an officer 20 baht, about $0.50. She would not stop to talk to reporters.

“The longer you stay the more you have to pay,” she said.

A second man with a prosthetic leg walked off the bridge and, without speaking, handed 20 baht to a Camcontrol officer sitting cross-legged and in sunglasses under an umbrella.

Camcontrol monitors the entry of foodstuffs into the country, but the officer, Nov Ton, said everyone carrying goods across the border could pay a voluntary “service charge.”

He then presented a government sub-decree signed July 9, 2001, by Customs and Excise Department head Pen Siman. The decree allows Camcontrol to collect payments for their services, but does not specify amounts.

A plastic box on Nov Ton’s roadside table was full of Thai currency, and an official logbook stayed shut.

“If they can pay me, they pay me,” Nov Ton said, as a lanky man beside his wooden cart pleaded with customs officers a few meters away.

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