Luxury SUVs bearing military license plates whizzing through traffic are a familiar sight on the streets of Phnom Penh. But who are the drivers? And how many of them are actually soldiers?
An old traffic law, in place since the early 1990s, did not clearly state how a vehicle might obtain the distinctive red-and-blue plates of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. But a 2003 subdecree stated that any vehicle with RCAF plates “must be state-owned, army green in color and bear the logos of the commanding headquarters,” according to Preap Chan Vibol, deputy director of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s land transport department.
The new traffic law, which took effect in March, requires all private vehicles bearing state, police and RCAF plates to have switched over to civilian plates within one year of the law coming into force.
Preap Chan Vibol said this week, however, that there has been little to no change in the number of vehicles on the road with RCAF plates—90 percent of which, he said, are doing so illegally.
“There is no enforcement,” he said, adding that he had no idea how many vehicles in the country are currently sporting military plates.
“The vehicles must belong to the state,” he said. “Nowadays, when 90 percent are privately owned…. It is not correct. According to the subdecree, they must have logos and be the right color [green].”
He said that the ministries of Interior and Defense are responsible for issuing police and military plates, respectively, and that the plates are much sought after because drivers receive tax breaks and supplements of fuel from the government—not to mention the symbol of power they exude.
Defense Minister Tea Banh said RCAF plates are issued to anyone in the family of someone serving in the military who can afford to purchase his or her own vehicle.
The Cambodia military is estimated to number more than 100,000 members.
“How can we not let them have it? Soldiers also need to drive cars,” Tea Banh said, adding that he did not know how many vehicles there were with such plates.
Cars that belong to the state have identifying logos, he said, but private vehicles can also qualify for military plates.
“If the state cannot afford to buy the cars for them, they can contribute their personal budget,” he said, adding that RCAF plates are provided free of charge.
“There are all brands [of cars]. Hummers are also cars. They must have plates,” he said.
“People in the family also have the rights to drive these cars. It is not complicated,” Tea Banh maintained. “For the children, if their fathers are soldiers, and the soldiers are human beings, then the wives and children also need to drive cars. And when they drive cars, they need plates,” he explained.
Tea Banh denied that tax breaks are provided to anyone with military plates.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said, however, that non-state-owned vehicles bearing state or military plates risk being confiscated.
“RCAF and police plates are only for state property…. If it is your own money, and you put on RCAF plates, it is already wrong,” he said.
Phnom Penh’s traffic police chief, Tin Prasoer, said the Interior Ministry issued an order to stop private vehicles from using police and RCAF plates, but that such a directive is difficult to enforce.
“There are difficulties,” he said.
“Sometimes we [try to] stop them, but they don’t stop. We just stand on the streets and call them to stop. We have no other means to stop them,” he said.