Chor Phalla was on her way to visit her 9-month-old daughter at Kantha Bopha II Hospital in Phnom Penh on Tuesday morning when she drove the wrong way up a one-way street and directly into an unexpected encounter with the Municipal Traffic Police Department.
Spotted by a vigilant Douch Marady, deputy head of the oft-criticized police department, the 40-year-old housewife and her 18-year-old daughter were pulled over near Independence Monument.
“She drove in the wrong direction. She knows but she still broke the law,” Douch Marady told reporters as he flagged the pair down. “My superior asked us to stay here as we want people to drive in one direction,” he explained.
Six traffic policemen gathered around Chor Phalla and listened as she explained that she was in a rush to see her hospitalized daughter.
“She’s unconscious and we’re in a hurry,” she said. “If you need money I can give money.”
Chor Phalla offered to pay $1.25 on the spot, but the officers informed her she would have to accompany them to the department’s offices so her case could be dealt with properly. They also said her small motorcycle would be impounded for three to seven days.
According to a March report by the Center for Social Development, the public perceives the traffic police as one of the country’s most dishonest institutions, just ahead of the tax authority, the judges and courts, and customs authorities.
This is partly because the public has extensive contact with the long arm of the traffic police, and because the department’s officers have a reputation for targeting the poor, Chea Vannath of the Center for Social Development said.
“Sometimes the poor have to obey the traffic law 100 percent, while people driving an expensive car, or one with the license plates of police, military or the government, these people can get away,” she said.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said it is not ministry policy for the traffic police to shake people down, and added that the department is doing a good job on the whole.
“Not all traffic police are bad,” Khieu Sopheak said. “They’re very active to fulfill their job…even though their salary has not been raised, they’re doing their best to serve the people.”
He added that the number of vehicles in the capital is increasing and that many drivers don’t observe the traffic law.
Khieu Sopheak urged people fined by the department to be sure to ask for a receipt, to ensure that the money goes into the state coffers and not the pockets of individuals.
Despite criticism, Kim Yidet, head of the department, said he enjoys his job, adding that the way the department operates is above- board. “There is not corruption in the traffic police,” he said.
There are currently more than 400 traffic police employed in the capital, Douch Marady said, adding that low-ranking officers in the department officially make $20 per month, while their wives do business to help support their families.
“Our policemen don’t ask law- breakers for money, but the law- breakers are busy so they give us money,” he said, adding that offenders can reach a compromise with the police to ensure that their motorbikes are only confiscated for a couple of days.
Several motorbike-taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers said they have little sympathy for the department and its officers.
Sum Savoeun, a tuk-tuk driver, said traffic police sometimes pull him over on Norodom Boulevard and take all his petrol money. If he says he has no money, they search his wallet and pockets before letting him go, he said.
If the government ensured that the traffic police were paid enough to survive, they might stop harassing the public, but for now, they are doing little to justify the department’s existence, said Suon Sophea, a motorbike taxi driver.
“They are useless,” he said. “They always suppress the small people. They are afraid to target the rich and powerful.”