Governor Renews Push to Curb Bribe-Seeking Traffic Police

Although the road shouldn’t have been blocked, it was. A mo­torcycle remorque overflowing with passengers had stopped in the middle of a busy Phnom Penh street on a recent weekday, causing a traffic logjam. Moto­r­cycle taxi drivers eager for fares swarmed the passengers. Cars be­­gan backing up.

Nearby police could have easily cleared the jam, but they seemed more interested in playing the lottery or kicking a discarded coco­nut. But the band of officers suddenly become alert when a truck loaded with merchandise edged itself into the crush of vehicles. Officers dispersed from the sidewalk and sauntered into the stream of traffic.

The truck driver knew the routine. As one officer approached, he readied a 1,000 riel bill (about $0.25). The of­ficer pocketed the money and waved the truck through the thick congestion.

Officers taking on-the-spot payoffs for bogus fines has become so rampant that some drivers are threatening an organized protest against the corrupt officers.

“They are armed with long guns and act like kidnappers,” said Siem Reap taxi driver Aing Sim Tour, 48. “They directly and openly ask for money, even if I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Other drivers interviewed said officers stand every day in small groups on street corners where taxis travel into the city. Some­times these groups extort 1,500 riel (about $0.38), many drivers com­plained. But heavily armed officers stationed on the outskirts of town on National Routes 5, 1, and 4 are known to de­­mand as much as 40,000 riel (about $10).

“We are very angry over this scam,” said a driver who refused to be named. He regularly travels be­tween Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and regularly pays off police officers. “We’d appreciate it if the government would stop them.”

But warnings from the govern­ment seem to matter little to the bands of traffic police supplementing their incomes with un­lawful fines levied against drivers.

“I am so ashamed of them,” Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuk­­­­tema said last week. “It’s very serious for the government.”

Earlier this month, Kep Chuk­tema went to Phnom Penh traffic police headquarters to deliver a strongly worded message to officers: Stop extorting drivers, especially those transporting merchandise, he told them. The warn­ing came after the governor learned that officers were taking 1,000 to 1,500 riel from motorists often stuck in traffic jams. These sorts of fines are strictly against police regulation, he said.

Taxi drivers said Thursday they are beginning to feel the pinch of extortion on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Kep Chuktema agreed something needs to be done to stop of­ficers, so he plans to meet with police again next month to once again try to dissuade the officers from cheating drivers.

In early 2000, 53 police and military officers were discovered extorting money from motorists at checkpoints on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Their punishment was cleaning toilets. Those crackdowns on extortion came only after Prime Minis­ter Hun Sen issued a directive to the provincial leaders with eight points, one of which banned police extortion at illegal checkpoints.

One senior officer, however, said police need the extra cash to supplement their low wages.

The officers’ monthly salaries typically range from $15 to $25.

“They work so hard. They should be forgiven for this little ab­use,” one senior officer said. “We take only from the overloaded truck, we don’t steal from the national budget.”

Intimidating drivers out of an occasional 2,000 riel isn’t going to make anyone rich, said the officer. But if the abuse becomes too serious, he promised to punish the officers by shaving their heads.

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