Each day, Leng Navoy hops into his battered 1983 Carina taxi and heads out on the
pot-holed highways that lead from Kompong Thom town.
By the evening when he retires to sleep, often in the back of his cab in a distant
provincial town, he has usually ferried passengers and luggage across several hundred
kilometers of some of the worst roads in Asia. He has also usually been held up by
soldiers countless times, had pistols placed to his head, rifles jabbed in his ribs,
grenade launchers aimed at his car and been dragged from his car and harangued by
"It's just intimidation, they never shoot," he said after running a make
shift "tollgate" by pointing at his Western passengers and mouthing "UNTAC,
"I usually give them 500 to a 1,000 riel and everything is okay. Some of the
other drivers say they have been shot at but it has never happened to me," the
37-year-old driver explained as he weaved his way along a moonscape-like stretch
of Route 6 from Kompong Thom to Kompong Cham.
Shortly after Navoy had finished his explanation of the ways of the road, a government
soldier wandered onto the middle of the highway and with the nonchalance of a veteran
matador brought the hurtling car to a halt by aiming a pistol somewhere in the direction
of Navoy's forehead.
Visibly drunk, the soldier and his four AK-47 armed comrades crowded the car, jeering
the passengers and abusing Navoy when he refused to hand over 10,000 riel. Eventually
the car was allowed to go after a heated exchange during which the soldiers repeatedly
cocked their weapons and the passengers did a lot of gesturing at their Western companion
and shouting of "UNTAC UNTAC."
Navoy who had handed over another 1,000 riel said a similar situation had occurred
during the election campaign period as he was transporting four Japanese journalists
from Phnom Penh to Kompong Thom.
"When the soldiers raised their weapons the Japanese jumped out with their cameras
and starting madly snapping pictures," he recalled. "The soldiers didn't
know what to do and ran off into the forest. It was great."
While Navoy enjoyed his memories his passengers were less impressed. "You should
put this in the newspaper, said Tol Leh, a Fisheries Dept. official coming down to
the city to visit his family.
"The National Assembly must do something about this. Cambodians can't travel
anywhere in the country and feel safe," he said.
While most of the hold-ups are nothing more than a menacing and nasty procedure,
sometimes they apparently end bloodily.
In April, U.N. civilian police patrol found a taxi riddled with bullet holes near
a bridge at the Kandal-Kompong Cham border crossing. Around the looted wreck lay
the seven bodies of the passengers and driver.
Taxi drivers said Kompong Cham, which is home to the notoriously ill-disciplined
51st regiment, is the worst province in Cambodia to pass through. At some points
on the road between ..river and the Kompong Chhnang (?)turn-off, soldiers demand
money at every 200 meters.
Capt. Chin Sethy who was manning a Kompong Cham bridge said the heavy road-side troop
presence was necessary to protect UNTAC personnel from the KR.
Banditry and extortion by government soldiers has traditionally been attributed to
the poor and irregular wages they are paid. In early August, the U.N. took responsibility
for army payrolls as part of a short-term attempt to quiet restive elements within
the military. The monthly wages start at 29,000 riels for a foot soldier and increase
with rank. "If you are single the money is enough to live on but if you have
a family, life is very difficult," Capt. Sethy said.
Taxi drivers said they had noticed no significant reduction in the level of highway
hold-ups since UNTAC began Operation Paymaster. Capt. Sethy declined to answer questions
about his troops holding up passing taxis.
Many of the soldiers accept cigarettes in lieu of money and by the smoked pallor
of their skin and yellow eyes and teeth, it would appear cigarettes are the preferred
form of payment.
Cambodia's roads are a lifeline for many villagers as well as soldiers. Children,
old men and women line many stretches of highway holding wicker baskets and asking
for donations for filling pot holes with dirt. Taxis that don't leave a trail of
100 riel notes in their wake are often pelted with mud by children up the road.
In many ways the roads provide a reflection of life in a country where raw power
remains the highest law. Pedestrians give way to motorcycles, motorcycles yield to
cars and cars make way for trucks. But as Maj. John Vaughan, the oft-quoted UNMO
from Siem Reap, said in his monthly newsletter from last May: "God made all
men different. Mr. Kalashnikov made them all the same."