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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Integrity and oaths are aim of customs reform

Integrity and oaths are aim of customs reform

The first draft of a new law regulating the Department of Customs and Excise

(DCE) went to a private sector working group chaired by Minister of Economy and

Finance Keat Chhon for consultation June 19.

The law is designed to

reform the DCE and ensure Cambodia's practices for importing and exporting

measure up to international standards.

The law was drawn up with

assistance from the International Monetary Fund, and the government hopes it

will be approved by the National Assembly by the end of the year.

"We

have a major reform program underway, and I think we're making good progress,"

said Bill LeDrew, the IMF's resident customs advisor. "It's not an overnight

process."

The DCE's deputy director, Kun Nhem, said the objective was to

create a modern customs office. Among the numerous planned changes are an

automated clearance system to replace the current manual process, as well as

technical and management training.

One of the more unusual pieces of the

legislation is that customs officers will have to take an oath to abide by a new

code of conduct. The current system is acknowledged as profoundly

corrupt.

To help smooth the path towards honesty, monthly salaries for

customs officers were recently boosted from $20 to $38. One insider said that

some officers in the port city of Sihanoukville were earning up to $2,000 a

month in kickbacks.

A facilitator for a local NGO wishing to go by the

name Marin has experience of dealing with customs. In June he had to deal with

an increased bribe demand from a facilitator inside the Ministry of Health he

hired to help clear equipment through airport customs.

The health

official told him the usual customs' bribe of $100 was now insufficient, and he

needed $150. Marin said his NGO could not afford that, which meant he would have

to spend two weeks and $70 in 'tea money' to get the job

done.

"Management doesn't exist," he said. "Corruption exists. It's only

corruption, there's no such thing as management."

One customs clearance

agent, who works at Pochentong Airport for a transport company and wished to

remain anonymous, said it was normal to pay money to Cambodian customs

officials.

"I think all customs officers are corrupt," he said. "They

want money from other people to go into their pockets."

He pays

approximately $10 per ton in tea money, and said registering to get an "item

number", which is essential to identify a recently arrived product, is the most

difficult part of his job.

"Sometimes it takes me a whole day to get a

shipment," he said.

He observed some officers wearing diamond watches,

while certain female staff had diamond bracelets and rings. Most, he added,

drive cars that are unaffordable on their official salaries.

Khieu Sam

An, chief of personnel and administration at Pochentong's customs office, said

he didn't "let customs officers do anything wrong". He said the reforms were

necessary to streamline customs and help suppress smuggling, but progress went

"step by step".

Sam An's "policy is to make it quick and collect [tax]

revenue", but he said the process was sometimes slowed by the "consignee or

owner who doesn't know how to fill out forms".

While waiting to speak to

Sam An at Pochentong Cargo Terminal, the Post observed clearance staff giving

dollars from wads of money to customs agents, who swept the cash into desk

drawers as they signed and stamped forms.

Marin asserted this was the

process of paying "tea money", $5 for each customs item number, a charge Sam An

flatly denied.

"Customs brokers, or sometimes customers, don't know how

to fill out forms," said Sam An, "so they pay customs officers or someone else

because they are grateful to the officers for helping.

"If you ask all

clients who come to declare here, I help them very quickly. They never get asked

for money," he said. "Maybe they're paying back for something."

He said

the duty of customs was to collect revenue for the government, but felt people

"blame corruption when customs officers are [actually] collecting

tax".

The IMF's LeDrew speculated the payments the Post saw could have

possibly been legitimate 15,000 riel payments for customs declaration forms, but

added that "everyone acknowledges" integrity in customs was an issue.

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