Phou San got a message from his mother telling him to come home quickly.
The Chicago resident had not been back to Cambodia since he and his children walked to a Thai refugee camp in 1979 and moved to the US a few years later. His ailing mother said she needed to see him one last time. So he decided that Cambodia finally was secure enough for a visit.
But no more than a few days into the 70-year-old’s long-awaited visit back to Battambang town, he and his family were accosted by local police and forced to pay $10 each for a “visitor’s permit.”
“I told him it’s ridiculous to pay them this money, but he said he did not want to start any trouble,” said his daughter, Phou Sinath. “He said he knows better than to mess around with authorities.”
The Phou family was not the first. Another Cambodian-born group from the US recently had to pay $50 for three visitors to Battambang province.
“Police told them they needed permission to come to their village,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
Kao Kim Hourn’s brother had come from the US to help fund a relative’s funeral, but upon arrival he was approached by authorities. “He could not protest—he was in a remote area, and his security was at stake,” he said.
Not only did both families have to pay, but they were given what appeared to be an official document titled “Permission of Temporary Residency for Foreigners and Residents” and told they might be asked to show it when they left the country.
Yet Battambang province police chief Chan Kosal said Thursday he’s never heard of such a form.
“There is no principle to take money from visitors,” he said. He argued that police should protect visitors but he knows of no law to collect fees.
At a time when the Ministry of Tourism is working to encourage Cambodian-US dual passport holders to visit their home country, the actions by authorities in Battambang angered its director.
Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth said they only deter the more than 1 million Cambodians living abroad from coming home again. “This is totally contrary to our policy,” he said.
When asked if the fee collections would spark an investigation, a top Interior Ministry official said his agency would not take action until it receives a formal report.
That report should be made sooner rather than later, said Cheam Lamatin, the foreign affairs ministry’s deputy director of the department of America. “We will alert our minister. They have absolutely no right to do that.”
But until then, at least one family’s perception of Cambodia remains unaltered. “My brother came to Cambodia because he thought it had changed and improved. But now, he says it’s still more of the same.” Kao Kim Hourn said.
(Additional reporting by Im Sophea)