traphang chrey village, Koh Thom district, Kandal Province – The motorbikes came in waves. Every few minutes, two or three bumped down the rutted dirt road at breakneck speeds—each carrying a dangerously full load of smuggled fuel.
They carry 30-liter containers of gasoline, carefully stacked and strapped down, as many as 15 to a motorbike. The loads are the equivalent of roughly $330 at Phnom Penh prices—or about $230 just across the border in Vietnam.
Cambodia’s gasoline prices have reached record highs this year in response to global trends and government-imposed taxes, according to government and business officials.
But gasoline in Vietnam is state subsidized, resulting in drastically lower prices and a vibrant market for smuggling gasoline to Cambodia.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Hun Sen fired the country’s top tax official and declared smuggling one of the primary obstacles to increasing the country’s paltry tax revenues.
He offered provincial authorities monetary incentives to curb the problem and said that he would assume a larger role in the fight by using his authority to personally mobilize military and police forces.
But here in the nation’s south on Thursday, about a two-hour
on Thursday, about a two-hour drive to Phnom Penh on the Vietnamese border, smuggling continued unabated, and with the assistance of the authorities the prime minister hopes to enlist in his new anti-smuggling initiative.
The problem, one customs official said, is not that the authorities are unaware of what is smuggled down this narrow track alongside the Tonle Bassac but that police and military officials are involved.
Yim Pheang, head of the Customs Office at the Chrey Thom checkpoint—the official border crossing—said that after fuel is purchased in Vietnam and ferried to the Tonle Bassac’s eastern banks, smugglers enter the domain of the Cambodian border police and military.
Informal “tolls” are levied along the smugglers’ route by numerous officials, Yim Pheang said, but drivers still manage to make a profit by hauling huge amounts of fuel at a time.
Normally, motorbike couriers expect to earn between $5 and $15 a day, depending upon the number of trips they make, said drivers who paused long enough to be interviewed.
Local villagers who watch the fuel smugglers speed by their homes estimated that, on an average day, more than 100 motorbikes travel down the road. And the flow continues year-round, with no break for the rainy season.
Everyone here knows that gasoline smuggling is illegal and many don’t participate, Chheu Khmao commune Chief Thang Oeurng said, but he grudgingly admitted that the standard of living in his commune had improved in recent years.
Watching bystanders help an overloaded and wobbling motorbike through a particularly rough stretch of road, he tried to explain the local authorities’ position.
“We have one eye closed and one eye open,” he said.