Russei Keo resident Sen Ly says his second-hand Korean motorcycle is so old it shouldn’t be taxed. The funny thing is, tax officials don’t agree.
“There cannot be an exception,” says Nhem Saran, director of Phnom Penh’s public works and transportation department. “People just want to get away from the problem.”
But the 32-year-old says the problem is that he paid $750 for his motorcycle in 1995, when the market was a lot more expensive than it is today. Now he would pay just $70 for the same motorcycle, he said. He would sell it, but he doesn’t have a certificate proving he is the owner. It would cost too much to make it worth obtaining, he said. “How can I afford to pay?” he asked.
Sen Ly’s problems may mount in coming weeks, as police and customs officials take to the streets to hunt down motorcycles that have no license plates. Unregistered motorcycles will earn their drivers a 2,000 riel warning.
If the driver has no certificate showing they paid an import tax on the motorcycle, additional fines may be levied.
Uy Kosal, bureau chief of municipal customs and excise, said officials have been ordered to hunt down the unregistered motorcycles by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema in order to fight crime.
Import taxes generally cost from $30 to more than $100, depending on the age and quality of the motorcycle, according to Nhem Saran. But several people interviewed recently said they would rather risk getting the fine than pay tax on their motorcycles.
Some of the people interviewed said it is not their responsibility to pay the taxes because they did not import the motorcycle: It should be the dealer’s responsibility, they said.
“I’m not an importer. I’m not a smuggler,” said Srah Chak commune resident Yung Yarann, 29. “If they do it this way it looks like punishing the poor people.”
Yung Yarann said he bought an untaxed motorcycle in a public street near Phsar O’Russei. The motorcycle dealer acknowledged that they were not charging him enough to cover the cost of the tax because that would only raise the price and make it more difficult for them to sell it.
“It’s not me alone,” said a 25-year-old dealer who wanted to be known only as Vichet. “There are many people who sell their motorcycles without charging tax to the customer.”
The motorcycle dealers said authorities should crack down on smugglers and make them pay the tax. But another dealer said people should not buy untaxed products if they know they are coming from smugglers.
“If we buy illegal goods it means we are encouraging them,” he said. “We are an accomplice.”
Untaxed motorcycles are usually smuggled into the country through border crossings with Thailand or through the port of Sihanoukville, officials said.
The newer models are usually smuggled through border checkpoints with healthy bribes paid to local government officials. Older Korean models are usually shipped in cargo containers through Sihanoukville.
“Coming by sea is not smuggling, but the importer paid off customs [to avoid paying high import taxes],” said a bike owner. “The customs officers there should be punished.”
The government’s action against people driving untaxed motorcycles looks like punishing the poor people while allowing government officials to shirk their duties to charge the import tax to the shippers and dealers, said the bike owner.
“I will absolutely not pay the tax,” said Sen Ly, adding that if authorities ban untaxed and unregistered motorcycles from the street he will have no choice but to stop using the bike.
“I will push it into my house’s corner, and my family will have nothing to eat,” he said.