Frustrated by a lack of law enforcement by traffic police, one man decided to take the law into his own hands – and the authorities seem to be fine with it
Dressed in high-visibility uniforms and helmets and armed with whistles and a tuk-tuk-mounted loudspeaker that can be heard a kilometre away, Khoeun Sola and his team are vigilante traffic wardens.
“Please, owner of licence plate number [xxxx], move your car. You can’t park here on this road.
You could cause a traffic jam or an accident,” Sola, 31, bellowed at a double-parked Lexus during peak hour on Tuesday afternoon. Sometimes, he called out restaurant owners for allowing their customers to park illegally outside.
“Please love your life and wear a helmet,” he told moto drivers zooming past. “Don’t drive so fast.”
Back at his headquarters, Sola explained how he had been a reporter for a Khmer-language newspaper for years. He wanted to write about traffic problems, gambling and littering, but his employer refused to publish his stories and the authorities never took action.
Frustrated, last December, he founded the Humanitarian Press Unit, a group that now comprises about 30 volunteers from backgrounds ranging from public servants to students and tuk-tuk drivers, who offer their time before or after their day jobs to educate,direct and sometimes harass motorists.
The team doesn’t just harass selfish car owners. They can also be seen amid Phnom Penh’s chronic rush-hour traffic jams, puffing on their whistles desperately as they try to impose some sort of order on the chaos.
Sola says his team are stepping in to fix problems being ignored by the police and city authorities. “Our team has identity cards from the Ministry of Information [which gives us the authority] to improve traffic,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said the city didn’t have a problem with the group’s activities.
“We’ve heard of the Humanitarian Press Unit and their attempts to improve traffic,” he said.
“We think what they’re doing is good, but we will keep an eye on them in case they break the traffic law or go beyond their current activities.”
He said if their purpose was to help society and encourage respect for the law, then the city would support them.
San Chey, a fellow with the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, said that citizen engagement to solve problems without seeking political or individual benefit was a good thing.
“I heard the team had received abuse from rich people while attempting to direct traffic,” he said.
However, he said it was important that such volunteers were granted authority from the government to avoid confusing people or conflict with the police.
“Some people only respect police, so if there are other people taking on that role, it could lead to problems,” he said.
Despite being the target of an occasional hurled brick or bottle from moto riders who don’t like being told to wear helmets, Sola said he felt no fear.
And he said the public humiliation was having an effect. While the team were often ignored, some chastened motorists did actually move their cars.
Restaurant owners who allowed cars to park outside their premises illegally had even called offering him money to leave them alone.
“We had a meeting where a restaurant owner offered to give us $500 per month as a bribe, but I wouldn’t sell my principles,” Sola said.
Still, some might be suspicious of the team’s motives in a country where police are notorious for shaking down motorists.
But Sola said that, despite being poor, his men never took bribes.
“If people want to donate without ulterior motives, we will accept them, but we are an independent team who just want to help people,” he said.
“We have received packages of rice, gas coupons and money from the Cambodian Union of Youth Federations, some individuals and district chiefs, but we don’t work for our own pockets.”
To earn money, Sola has a range of odd jobs, including distributing newspapers and collecting scrap paper for recycling.
In the future, he said, he would like to expand the team’s remit.
“If we are given the power and more support from the governors to cooperate with them, we want to take action on other issues such as gambling and drug use,” he said.