Phnom Penh International Airport teems with uniformed officials. Their presence lends
Cambodia's primary transit hub an air of secure efficiency.
Armed guards patrol the entrance to the airport building; customs officers lean against
the metal barriers eyeing the crowds of passengers and well-wishers milling around
But the façade of formality masks a different reality.
"We need to make immediate reforms," said Bun Ny, the airport's Chief of
Security Operations. "We need to bring in the modern technology essential to
improving airport security."
At a seminar on airport security held on October 11, over 300 government officials
from the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs and the Customs Department
were told that the airport is not yet meeting the standards of the International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Ny said.
"We have managed to update our infrastructure and now provide a good service,"
said Ny. "But there are many areas in which we still fall short."
There are two primary areas that prevent Cambodia from complying with ICAO regulations.
First, government officials are flouting airport regulations.
"There is sometimes total anarchy in front of the departure and arrival station
because bodyguards or police officials are facilitating the arrival of a particular
individual," Ny said. "Our government's officials are not respecting the
Second, the airport lacks the basic equipment needed to protect the airport from
unlawful interference, including a proper boundary fence, an explosive detection
system, and sky marshals, he said.
"We do not meet the standards of the ICAO," he said. "This leaves
us open to threats to civil aviation from hijack, sabotage and terrorist attacks."
The impunity with which government officials behave in the airport is particular
cause for concern, Ny said.
"Government officials have to be a model for the other passengers," he
said. "We must punish those who use their power to flout the laws we have in
place to ensure the security and safety of our international airport."
The bad behavior of the upper echelon of air passengers serves to illustrate the
broader problem. Because Phnom Penh International Airport is not meeting ICAO standards,
it is likely to be targeted as a weak link in the regional transportation chain as
other countries in the region, such as Thailand, tighten up their airport regulations.
"The relevant authorities at Cambodia's international airports have not been
given the resources or the training to deal with the increased threats that come
with globalization," said Graham Shaw, Technical Adviser at the National Authority
for Combating Drugs.
The fate of "drug mules" - individuals carrying drugs either on or inside
their bodies - arrested at Pochentong or at their country of destination is what
attracts the lion's share of media attention regarding Cambodian airport security.
Often lauded as signs of progress in anti-drug trafficking in Cambodia, these arrests
distract attention from a far larger problem.
"Air travel that uses people as a means to move illicit drugs means that only
relatively small quantities can be trafficked," said Shaw. "The other issue
is air cargo, but [at Pochentong] the impression I get is that the focus is on air
passengers, not cargo."
The police have arrested five people and confiscated 10.65 kg of different types
of drug this year, said Thong Lim, Chief of Immigration Department Police at the
Ministry of Interior.
But in terms of monitoring cargo shipments, the airport is still struggling, he said.
"Our communication system to share information is not good enough," he
said. "Look at the July 7 arrival of a container of bullets [later delivered
to the US Embassy]. Our local authorities didn't know. I was informed of this incident
by the Military Police."
Ny said that although Pochentong has the ability to scan air freight in the form
of X-ray machines (which should, in theory, have been able to detect the mislabeled
container of bullets) it lacks the sophisticated and expensive equipment necessary
to check for narcotics, for example a liquid detection system.
"It is very expensive equipment that can detect the gases that come from certain
kinds of narcotics," Shaw said. "You also need training and good maintenance
to make it effective."
A lack of staff limits the number of thorough checks that can be performed on air
"Sometimes they check inside containers; sometimes they don't," said So
Cheat, customs broker for the freight company UPS. "They X-ray, and if they
are not suspicious, they don't check."
But the lack of sophisticated equipment is compounded by the need for cargo to navigate
the complex layers of bureaucracy that control the airport. Although it is possible
to go through official channels, it is far easier and quicker to bribe your cargo
out of custody, Cheat said.
"There is Cam Control [under the jurisdiction of the] Ministry of Commerce,
the customs police, which is part of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and then
immigration police," Cheat said. "There are very many government officials
[and you may have to pay] under-the-table charges to all of them."
Cheat's work primarily consists of collecting fabric samples delivered to the airport
for garment factories in Cambodia. He says there is a clear structure of under-the-table
payments to ensure a package makes it through the airport.
"To get a parcel over 10kg out of the warehouse we pay $10 to CamControl, $5
to the customs police and $3 to the others," he said. "We have to clear
these charges with the garment factory whose package it is."
Cheat estimated that to get a package through customs paying under-the-table bribes
would cost $100, but to go through official channels would cost between $150 and
$200 because of extra commissions paid on the way. It would also take several days
longer to obtain the goods.
"The garment factories want to clear their cargo under the table as it is much
cheaper and quicker," he said.