battambang town – Despite government efforts to stop fuel smuggling, thousands of liters of gasoline are still being trucked across the Thai border every month, costing the government millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, customs officials say.
And because the smuggling rings are often run by soldiers backed by high-ranking government officials, it is dangerous to interfere, the customs officials say.
“It is hard for us to crack down on them….They have weapons,” Van Sarun, deputy chief of Battambang’s customs office, said. “In this country we have laws, but they are not effective because [the smugglers] do not follow them.”
Last September, the Ministry of Finance ordered the Thai-Cambodian border closed to fuel-carrying trucks in an effort to stop smuggling that was estimated then to be costing the government $800,000 a month.
But as the large fuel trucks have come under increasing scrutiny from inspectors, smugglers have switched to using small trucks, cars and even motorbikes.
The government is losing at least $1.5 million a month in taxes not paid on fuel brought into the country, Customs Director Pen Siman said Monday in an interview. Cambodian National Petroleum Authority says it has estimated the loss to be as high as $3 million per month.
After being brought across the border and often to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, the fuel is trucked—usually on back roads—to Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and even Phnom Penh, said Pen Siman.
But he maintained the situation is improving because there is more cooperation with local authorities.
As the government tries to cut down on overland transport of gasoline, there is also fuel being smuggled from Thailand by water through Sihanoukville.
On Monday, Sihnoukville customs officials seized 19,000 liters of gasoline on a boat coming from Thailand.
The seized gasoline is being kept at Tum Nob Rolok, a port area in Sihanoukville.
Kim Ka, the owner of the gasoline, said she will file a complaint against the customs authority for unlawfully seizing the cargo when she had permission to import the gasoline.
But according to Pen Siman, she did not have permission to import.
While millions of liters of fuel are smuggled into the country, customs officers count their victories in the small loads they are able to seize hidden in boats or in the back of taxis.
On Sunday, customs officials made another small dent in the smuggling network, seizing a pickup truck carrying approximately 1,000 liters of gasoline from Pailin to Battambang. The truck, the driver and the cargo are now being held at the Battambang customs office.
The driver, who asked not to be named, said smuggling fuel is the best way he has to earn a living.
“I get a lot of money from carrying gasoline,” he said. ”
The driver said he was paid 1,000 baht ($25.60) to take 1,000 liters of gasoline from Pailin to Battambang.
“I drove through remote villages,” the driver said. “The path is no good, but it is good for avoiding tax.”
Though the owner of the gasoline has to make small payments to militias and local authorities along the way, it is cheaper than paying tax to customs officials, the driver said.