AMID fears that he might be assassinated, the head of the Customs investigation and
anti-smuggling unit at the Ministry of Economy and Finance has ordered a pause in
the seizure of smuggled luxury cars.
Sar Theng, chief of the Anti-Smuggling Office, told the Post that he feared for his
life after an operation to seize smuggled vehicles in Phnom Penh on September 17.
That resulted in a tense standoff between police, customs officials and armed men
in civilian clothes who were guarding the cars.
Police officers were forced to shoot out the tires of one of the vehicles when a
man tried to drive it away.
Theng said that since that raid his department had suspended its anti-smuggling operations.
"I dare not say who I think is behind the smuggling [of luxury cars], but rich
businessmen have conspired with gunmen and they have no fear of the authorities,"
"So after the [September 17] crackdown on the smuggling of cars, I'm afraid
of being assassinated."
Since the raid the confiscated vehicles have been kept in storage by customs. Officials
said their owner owes around $300,000 on the cars. No arrests were made at the time
of the seizure, and the owner has unsurprisingly yet to collect them.
Theng said he did not know exactly how many smuggled cars were stored in lots across
Phnom Penh, but he estimated that between 20-30 are illegally brought into Cambodia
every day. Most are prestige models, like Landcruisers or Mercedes, which cost over
$100,000 each, brought in from Thailand.
Theng pointed out that smuggling costs the country badly-needed tax revenues. With
tax on even the cheaper models of these luxury marques standing at about $10,000
the government is losing around $100 million annually.
"Cambodia is poor even in comparison with other developing countries. Yet if
we look at the vehicles [on the roads] many are new models like Landcruisers and
Mercedes," he said. "If everyone paid the correct tax on these vehicles
and on gasoline, then that money could be used to develop the country."
Theng's words were echoed by Son Chhay, the opposition lawmaker and former chair
of the National Assembly's Commission of Public Works, Transportation, Commercial,
Industry and Telecommunication. He agreed that corruption among officials was cheating
Cambodia of tax revenues.
Chhay said that customs officials and the military were behind the illegal smuggling
of cars, with officials then using their government positions to avoid paying tax
on the vehicles.
And he estimated that about 90 percent of senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officers
had paid no tax on their cars. The same could be said, he claimed for about 40 percent
of top civil servants and 10 percent of lawmakers in the National Assembly and the
Chhay estimated that only 60 percent of vehicles were properly taxed, with the owners
of the remaining 40 percent avoiding duty and vehicle taxes.
While the involvement of senior officials in smuggling has yet to be proven, it is
clearly a sensitive topic even for some of the most powerful in the Kingdom.
On September 21 the editor and a reporter for the Chakraval Daily newspaper were
arrested and detained for two days after they published two articles on smuggling.
The first alleged that National Police Director Hok Lundy had bought an illegally
smuggled vehicle for his deputy, Sau Phan, while the second stated that four senior
customs officers might be the target for hired killers following the September 17
raid. One of those named was Sar Theng.
Editor Keo Sorphoan and journalist Chey Makara were released on the orders of Prime
Minister Hun Sen, but Makara told the Post writing such articles was dangerous.
"I think that Cambodian journalists who want to release articles about the corruption
of the powerful, risk ending up like pigs going to slaughter."