When the 2007 Traffic Law was passed, it required that the myriad private vehicles on the road bearing Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) number plates be removed and switched with civilian plates within one year.
But more than six years after this deadline, the sight of luxury SUVs displaying the distinctive red-and-blue plates is as familiar as ever. Dozens of RCAF-licensed cars in various makes and sizes were seen this week cruising Phnom Penh’s streets or parked near shops and restaurants, although by law these cars should only be used for official military business and must be painted army green, bearing the logo of commanding headquarters.
On Sihanouk Boulevard on Wednesday, the driver of a Lexus 570 parked outside the International Book Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was doing errands for his boss, who owned the SUV.
“My boss has had this number plate for a long time, but he is a commander of the army, so why shouldn’t he have an army license for his car?” he said.
General Chao Phirun, director of the Ministry of Defense’s general department of material and technical services, said RCAF number plates continue to be issued for military officials’ personal vehicles.
In fact, officials who can afford to buy private cars actually help RCAF, because the military cannot afford to supply everyone with a vehicle, he said.
“We issue RCAF number plates for military officials for private use because the state doesn’t have money to buy enough vehicles, so the state relies on those military officials who can afford buying cars,” he said, adding that he could not remember the number of RCAF plates currently in use.
However, Mr. Phirun said the number of civilians driving cars with RCAF license plates had likely decreased in the past six years.
“It seems that okhnas [wealthy businessmen] don’t use the plates so much compared to in the past, as military police will check and the RCAF number plates will be removed if those number plates are fake,” he said.
While there has been no change to the rules, spokesman for the National Military Police, Brigadier General Kheng Tito, said that military police were not in fact enforcing them due to ongoing security issues related to the current political deadlock.
“RCAF number plates are not created for public use and not to benefit the children of oknhas,” Brig. Gen. Tito said.
“It is a serious issue that some people with an arrogant character use RCAF number plates to drive their cars at high speed, as though the streets were created by their parents for them to drive.
“But we have been busy protecting national security amid the political crisis after the national election so how can we look into that issue?” he asked.
Brig. Gen. Tito said that once the deadlock is resolved, military police will begin implementing the license plate regulations.
A tiny, dented Mitsubishi Carol parked on Sihanouk Boulevard on Wednesday looked incongruous with blue-and-red RCAF plates. Its driver, 35-year-old Keth Pikea, a member of the Military Trumpet Unit doubling as a personal driver for a two-star general whose identity he refused to provide, said the car was properly registered.
“The ministry gave [my boss] a Toyota Land Cruiser but he refused to take it because he loves small cars,” he said, adding that although the high-ranking general owned 18 cars in total, only the Mitsubishi has a military plate.
Mr. Pikea said he was aware that not all cars with RCAF plates are legal, but noted that all number plates must be registered to a military official, which promotes accountability.
“If you don’t work with the ministry and buy or use an RCAF number plate then the person in charge of issuing the RCAF number plate will be held responsible when there any problems occur…[such as] secretly transport rosewood or drugs,” he said.
Last month, a Chinese man driving a luxury SUV with RCAF plates drunkenly smashed into a Cintri garbage truck at 3 a.m., causing horrific injuries to a 19-year-old trash collector. Officials at the Ministry of Defense, National Police and the traffic police department repeatedly declined to reveal whom the vehicle belonged to or why a Chinese national was driving it.
Preap Kol, head of Transparency International Cambodia, said banning the personal use of RCAF number plates was useless unless the regulations were enforced.
“It is another example of creating a law that in practice does the exact opposite, as the lack of enforcement of the law—especially among senior officials—shows any form of corruption that can get connected people away from responsibility will be done.”
Military vehicles are only supposed to be used for official military duties, he added.
“There are only two reasons why officials use RCAF plates for personal use—one is for the privilege and authority the plates give, the other is because they are doing something illegal and want to get away with it.”
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