Smuggling Steady Despite Thai Border Standoff

Smuggling between Thailand and Cambodia remains steady despite both Bangkok and Phnom Penh shutting their frontier posts to local traders and travelers in the wake of the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, provincial officials said on Wednesday.

Officials in Koh Kong province also said they have increased night patrols of Cambodia’s coastal border in a bid to keep Thai fishermen out of Cambodian waters.

Thach Khorn, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, said Tuesday that police were being extra-vigilant in keeping the Thai border shut, especially to smugglers using clandestine routes to bypass patrols of border police.

A police official in the northwest, however, said the closure was unlikely to dent the cross-border smuggling business in cheap gasoline, vehicles and other goods from Thailand, the need for which will increase in demand as the border standoff speeds their disappearance from Cambo­dian markets.

It was too early yet to determine how much smuggling would increase or had begun to increase, the police official added.

Officials in Koh Kong province also said the border closure has halted the flow of legal goods, but has not slowed the advance of illegal, smuggled goods.

Vegetables, gasoline and construction equipment once imported from Thailand were now being brought by road from Phnom Penh.

But the new route from the capital has increased the price of such commodities, particularly building materials, which have rocketed in cost, said Cheam Him, Koh Kong second deputy governor.

Alcohol and packaged foodstuffs remain the most commonly smuggled goods and the Thai border closure was unlikely to stop a business that has operated through years of warfare in Cambodia, particularly across the sea border with Thailand, he said.

“We cannot get away from this problem, there are many illegal checkpoints in the forest…. If authorities are strict on the border they go by the sea. If they are strict on the sea they go by the border,” Cheam Him said.

Kong Heng, first deputy chief of Smach Meanchey district in Koh Kong province, also agreed that smuggling of gasoline was rampant.

A Cambodian marine border official said on Tuesday that smuggling in coastal waters off Koh Kong remained even though authorities have stepped up patrols, especially at night, to prevent Thai fishermen entering Cambodian waters.

“They are smuggling such things as beer, foodstuffs and gasoline…. It looks quiet for the common people, but for the rich and powerful it is not quiet. They are busy smuggling goods into the province then on to Sre Ambel and Phnom Penh,” the marine official said.

Koh Kong’s marine force commander Keo Mony Soka said on Wednesday he could not comment on the allegations of smuggling as he was away from the province on a mission.

Cambodia’s well-organized smuggling networks are believed to cost the government millions of dollars each year in lost tax revenue and the availability of smuggled goods—sold at cheaper prices—has been singled out by investors as a major hurdle to doing legitimate business in Cambodia.

While Cambodia may be somewhat effective in closing its land borders with Thailand, water and air space is almost impossible to patrol because of the country’s lack of naval ships, aircraft, radar and communications equipment, RCAF said in a report released last year.

RCAF officials in Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap province said last week that Thai jet aircraft had buzzed the Cambodian border late last month.

Brigadier General Sok Pheap, deputy bureau chief of RCAF border affairs with Thailand, said on Friday that four Thai fighter jets flew over Cambodian territory 10 km inside the border in O’Smach and An Seh communes in Oddar Meanchey on Feb 28.

An RCAF official in Siem Reap also confirmed the overflight.

“When I asked our Thai partners why they over-flew Cambodian territory, they said they were exercising,” Sok Pheap said by telephone.

“This act shows that Thais look down on us,” Sok Pheap said.

Border overflights have been a contentious issue for RCAF officials in recent years. In February 2001, a senior RCAF commander also blasted the Thai air force for allowing planes and helicopters to enter Cambodian airspace in the Choam Khsan district of Preah Vihear province.

The official claimed the air incursions were taking place “day and night.”

Despite continued strong government statements in Phnom Penh that Thai border forces are targeting Cambodians, RCAF officials have remained muted on their responses to the border standoff and have denied any reinforcements have been sent to the frontier.

However, Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper reported on Wednesday that Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh warned tourists to stay away from the Thai-Cambodian border as the situation was becoming increasingly tense.

Thai military and naval commanders were preparing for possible cross-border raids by Cambodian bandits and pirates as a result of shortages brought on by the border closure, the Post reported.

More than 200 foreign tourists are still crossing the Thai-Cambodian border in Poipet and Koh Kong each day, officials said on Wednesday.

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