R OUTE 5 is one of the most dangerous roads on which vehicles travel because of robbery, banditry and extortion carried out by both official and fake soldiers, according to drivers who regularly travel the road.
The soldiers responsible for protecting the road often set-up illegal checkpoints and demand bribe payments from road users on the orders of higher ranking military officials, according to travelers, who say at other times the soldiers rob or shoot at vehicles.
The 360 km route 5 is one of the most important roads in the country, linking Phnom Penh to Thailand by passing through Kandal, Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
The Post traveled the route extensively from Aug 11-13. Part of the trip was done in an old truck which had many bullet holes in it including through the back-window.
The truck driver, who requested anonymity, told the Post : "A few days ago I stopped at the beginning of a bridge to give soldiers [manning a checkpoint] money. When I completely crossed the bridge another soldier opened fire on our truck.
"Luckily the truck was loaded with rice sacks in the back so that the bullets could not go through and hit any passengers."
A group of roadside residents, when interviewed by the Post, described how on Aug 12 they saw a truck traveling between Pursat and Battambang being stopped by a gang of soldiers.
They said: "The soldiers blocked the front and back of the truck and fired into the air to threaten other cars and trucks so that they couldn't come any nearer.
"The gang then stole boxes full of cargo from the truck and took all the passengers' luggage and money."
Taxi drivers told the Post how their vehicles were sometimes stopped by soldiers and looted of money and other valuables including passengers' jewelry.
One taxi driver said the banditry was definitely being done by government soldiers and that there was no Khmer Rouge along the route between Phnom Penh and Battambang.
He told the Post how a relative of Battambang provincial commander General Um Samy was looted on the route.
He said the general then convened a meeting of all the local military commanders and subsequently much of the robbery on the route was reduced.
Other drivers and people believe that the soldiers perpetrating the extortion are acting on the direct orders of high ranking military officers who are taking their cut from the crimes.
A senior official in the Ministry of Defense, who use to live in Battambang and asked not to be named, said: "The soldiers' actions were sometimes authorized by higher ranking officers and at other times they were acting on their own accord."
He added that almost all people in the Battambang region had guns, and much of the extortion was not done by real soldiers.
He said many civilians dressed up in military uniform, set-up illegal checkpoints, and used their guns to rob the travelers.
Residents in Battambang, when interviewed by the Post, substantially agreed with the defense official's assessment.
The Post noted that between Phnom Penh and Battambang there were eight main checkpoints and 40 other places, commonly near bridges, where soldiers stopped vehicles and demanded money and looted cars.
A gang of between two to five soldiers with assorted guns stand in the center of the road to stop taxis and trucks at the minor checkpoints.
Taxi drivers say, to avoid being attacked by the soldiers, they pay between 300 to 500 riel at the minor checkpoints and 1,000 riel at the major checkpoints.
The charge is bigger for trucks and lorry drivers who say they must pay between 5,000 to 7,000 riel at the minor checkpoints, and between 20,000 and 50,000 riel at the major checkpoints.
The travelers say the soldiers earn between 6,000 and 10,000 riel per day from the illegal taxes they charge. They say that averagely about 20 taxis and 10 trucks use the route each day.
But they say the demands made are irregular and often the soldiers pretend to be drunk and charge more or alternatively steal all the travelers' money and loot the cars.
Drivers say the soldiers often demand payment in Thai Baht because they do not want to have to waste time counting large stacks of riel.
The drivers added that the route is particularly bad between Battambang and Banteay Meanchey, especially at night, and the road is very bumpy which greatly retards travel.
They add that there are also problems with illegal taxes and banditry on Route 3 linking Phnom Penh to Kampot, Route 4 linking Phnom Penh to Kompong Som, and route 6 linking Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham.
In contrast one traveler said: "The soldiers are very poor. They live destitute lives. Some of them seem glad picking up 200 riel tossed to them by the travelers.
"They are not all bad. They sit in the sun guarding bridges, so being paid 200 riel from a car using the road is not too much money.
"The payments should be considered as charity."
Lieutenant General Proche Bunthol told the Post on Aug 15 that it was the responsibility of provincial governors and commanders to stop the illegal military extortion on the roads.
Bunthol when he was interviewed was the Deputy Chief of the department of International relations of the General Staff of the RCAF.
But diplomatic sources have confirmed that he has been recently demoted because of statements he made to the press.