Vehicle registration around the world is usually as simple as paying a fee and getting a license plate. It is a system that generates income for governments almost everywhere.
But like many laws in Cambodia, the car and motorcycle license-plate regulations are widely ignored. Enforcement is lax, fraud is common and the system is corrupt.
“When I see the police, I drive in the other direction,” said one motorcycle driver whose bike had no plates. “The number plates cost $25 from the government. Fake ones are no good because if the police stop you they’ll ask for money.”
That money generally goes into the officers’ pockets. The corruption is costing the government much-needed revenue, complain government officials who are calling for a crackdown.
“The situation is quite chaotic right now,” said Meas Samith, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works, which is responsible for issuing the plates.
Meas Samith could not say just how much money the government is losing from license plate fraud. “All I could say, is that it is a lot because the law in this country is too loose,” he said.
“I think the government will prioritize a crackdown on this…. They are losing a lot of money,” he said. “The government’s eyes are closed, but they have to open their eyes. This is a proper time for a government to collect the taxes. They are cash-strapped.”
That time may be coming. Two weeks ago, Chea Sophara, first deputy governor of the Phnom Penh Municipality, said the municipal police will become more strict and insist that car and motorcycle buyers have both a driver’s license and plates.
Cars and motorcycles are required to have both front and back plates, but a quick survey of the capital’s roads reveals few have both and many have none. Many drivers say the plates are too expensive, and they prefer to take their chances with police.
Counterfeits are also widely and cheaply available for those who bother to get plates at all.
Cambodia has been issuing plates and licenses to its drivers since 1990. The plates expire if the vehicle is resold, but few buyers bother to change them.
“I bought my bike second-hand with the plates.” said one motorcycle driver. “I think they’re fake, and I’ve never had a tax certificate.”
Officially, legal license plates cost $4 for a motorcycle, $12 for a passenger car and $14 for a truck, but the Ministry of Public Works and Transport admits that these prices can vary.
“The government has flexible policies, free-wheeling policies,” Meas Samith said. “You have illegally imported cars or smuggled cars from the border check points. The smugglers are in collusion with the ministry.“
Counterfeit plates are sold openly around Phnom Penh, including a stand at the corner of Street 214 and Street 51. Motorcycle plates there cost $1, and car plates are $2. These are a convenient option when cars have been illegally imported and have avoided customs duty and taxes.
There is no need to present a tax certificate to roadside plates vendors. Counterfeit number plates are also available in just as many varieties as from the government—including military and police plates.
“There have been a lot of fake number plates,” Meas Samith said. “There have been military number plates, police number plates, international organization number plates, and the normal number plates. The police, they know what the fake number plates look like. They know, but the time is not coming yet for them to control them.”
Meas Samith’s own ministry may also be part of the problem. Public Works officials have been criticized by Chea Sophara for corruption, and according to the Khmer-language Evening News newspaper, two fake motorcycle plate makers were arrested by Phnom Penh police near the ministry building.
“Not only this building, it’s all over,” said Meas Samith, admitting several officials, who have not yet been identified, may have been involved in the scam.
“For sure there are officials who conspire with those dealers but we never find out who they are.”