Despite Threats, Unregistered SIMs Still in Service

Four months ago, Deputy National Police Commissioner Chhay Sinarith declared unregistered SIM cards a major threat to national security. They were a favored tool of terrorists, kidnappers and drug runners, he insisted, before accusing mobile operators that distribute them of toying with the safety of citizens.

Claiming that 70 percent of outlaws used cheaper SIMs that cannot be registered in order to carry out serious crimes, Lieutenant General Sinarith announced that effective immediately—and in accordance with a previously unenforced 2012 circular—IDs would be required for all SIM card purchases. He said telecommunication firms had three months to verify the identities of their customers and disconnect unregistered numbers.

A man browses SIM cards for sale at a Smart kiosk in Phnom Penh last week. (Enric Catala)
A man browses SIM cards for sale at a Smart kiosk in Phnom Penh last week. (Enric Catala)

After three months, he warned, all unverified lines would be automatically deactivated, while uncooperative companies could have their licenses suspended.

Today, however, the bargain SIM cards are still widely available in Phnom Penh, while an Interior Ministry official admitted on Monday that authorities had yet to begin enforcing the circular.

“We have not started cracking down yet,” said Nov Vuthy, chief of the telephone management bureau at the Interior Ministry’s internal security department, declining to comment further and referring all questions to Lt. Gen. Sinarith.

Multiple attempts to reach the general over the past week were unsuccessful.

Mao Chakrya, director of the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, said last week that the government body met with representatives of all major mobile operators —including local heavyweights Smart and Cellcard—in the days after Lt. Gen. Sinarith’s announcement and ordered them to bring their outlets, as well as smaller vendors, in line with the circular.

He said that as far as he knew, discount SIM cards that cannot be registered were no longer in circulation.

“We gave them three months to contact the vendors and the people who bought SIM cards without using ID after we announced,” Mr. Chakrya said. “Now there is no one using SIM cards without identity cards.”

While employees of brick-and-mortar phone shops in Phnom Penh told reporters that they no longer sold unregistered SIMs—most because they had been instructed to do so by the companies —roadside vendors are still doing a steady trade in the now-banned cards.

The owner of a stall in Daun Penh district, who refused to give his name for fear of prosecution, sold reporters an unregistered Smart SIM for $2 last week. He said about half of his customers were willing to pay $5 and up for registered cards—many of which contain numeral sequences considered lucky—while the rest opted for the $1 to $3 cards that cannot be registered.

A customer uses his mobile phone inside a Cellcard shop in Phnom Penh last week. (Enric Catala)
A customer uses his mobile phone inside a Cellcard shop in Phnom Penh last week.
(Enric Catala)

“I sell them to Cambodians and foreigners, but mainly students buy them,” he said of the bargain SIMs.

“I think that if the company did not allow vendors to sell them, then we should be compensated, because it is the company that should be responsible for this problem,” he said, adding that he has never been contacted by any of the telecommunications firms about the circular.

At a similar stall in Chamkar Mon district, owner Khuon Andy said he had returned his bargain SIMs to Smart and Cellcard in exchange for compensation about three months ago.

“I gave the companies back about 50 to 60 SIM cards after the companies told me they would shut down SIM cards sold without the use of identity cards,” Mr. Andy said.

“I did that because if I had kept them, I would have lost the profit when they shut down the service,” he said.

Smart CEO Thomas Hundt and qb CEO Alan Sinfield refused to answer questions about the SIM card clampdown. Representatives of Cellcard did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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