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'Anarchy' threatens airport

'Anarchy' threatens airport

Phnom Penh International Airport teems with uniformed officials. Their presence lends

Cambodia's primary transit hub an air of secure efficiency.

Armed guards patrol the entrance to the airport building; customs officers lean against

the metal barriers eyeing the crowds of passengers and well-wishers milling around


But the façade of formality masks a different reality.

"We need to make immediate reforms," said Bun Ny, the airport's Chief of

Security Operations. "We need to bring in the modern technology essential to

improving airport security."

At a seminar on airport security held on October 11, over 300 government officials

from the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs and the Customs Department

were told that the airport is not yet meeting the standards of the International

Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Ny said.

"We have managed to update our infrastructure and now provide a good service,"

said Ny. "But there are many areas in which we still fall short."

There are two primary areas that prevent Cambodia from complying with ICAO regulations.

First, government officials are flouting airport regulations.

"There is sometimes total anarchy in front of the departure and arrival station

because bodyguards or police officials are facilitating the arrival of a particular

individual," Ny said. "Our government's officials are not respecting the


Second, the airport lacks the basic equipment needed to protect the airport from

unlawful interference, including a proper boundary fence, an explosive detection

system, and sky marshals, he said.

"We do not meet the standards of the ICAO," he said. "This leaves

us open to threats to civil aviation from hijack, sabotage and terrorist attacks."

The impunity with which government officials behave in the airport is particular

cause for concern, Ny said.

"Government officials have to be a model for the other passengers," he

said. "We must punish those who use their power to flout the laws we have in

place to ensure the security and safety of our international airport."

The bad behavior of the upper echelon of air passengers serves to illustrate the

broader problem. Because Phnom Penh International Airport is not meeting ICAO standards,

it is likely to be targeted as a weak link in the regional transportation chain as

other countries in the region, such as Thailand, tighten up their airport regulations.

"The relevant authorities at Cambodia's international airports have not been

given the resources or the training to deal with the increased threats that come

with globalization," said Graham Shaw, Technical Adviser at the National Authority

for Combating Drugs.

The fate of "drug mules" - individuals carrying drugs either on or inside

their bodies - arrested at Pochentong or at their country of destination is what

attracts the lion's share of media attention regarding Cambodian airport security.

Often lauded as signs of progress in anti-drug trafficking in Cambodia, these arrests

distract attention from a far larger problem.

"Air travel that uses people as a means to move illicit drugs means that only

relatively small quantities can be trafficked," said Shaw. "The other issue

is air cargo, but [at Pochentong] the impression I get is that the focus is on air

passengers, not cargo."

The police have arrested five people and confiscated 10.65 kg of different types

of drug this year, said Thong Lim, Chief of Immigration Department Police at the

Ministry of Interior.

But in terms of monitoring cargo shipments, the airport is still struggling, he said.

"Our communication system to share information is not good enough," he

said. "Look at the July 7 arrival of a container of bullets [later delivered

to the US Embassy]. Our local authorities didn't know. I was informed of this incident

by the Military Police."

Ny said that although Pochentong has the ability to scan air freight in the form

of X-ray machines (which should, in theory, have been able to detect the mislabeled

container of bullets) it lacks the sophisticated and expensive equipment necessary

to check for narcotics, for example a liquid detection system.

"It is very expensive equipment that can detect the gases that come from certain

kinds of narcotics," Shaw said. "You also need training and good maintenance

to make it effective."

A lack of staff limits the number of thorough checks that can be performed on air


"Sometimes they check inside containers; sometimes they don't," said So

Cheat, customs broker for the freight company UPS. "They X-ray, and if they

are not suspicious, they don't check."

But the lack of sophisticated equipment is compounded by the need for cargo to navigate

the complex layers of bureaucracy that control the airport. Although it is possible

to go through official channels, it is far easier and quicker to bribe your cargo

out of custody, Cheat said.

"There is Cam Control [under the jurisdiction of the] Ministry of Commerce,

the customs police, which is part of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and then

immigration police," Cheat said. "There are very many government officials

[and you may have to pay] under-the-table charges to all of them."

Cheat's work primarily consists of collecting fabric samples delivered to the airport

for garment factories in Cambodia. He says there is a clear structure of under-the-table

payments to ensure a package makes it through the airport.

"To get a parcel over 10kg out of the warehouse we pay $10 to CamControl, $5

to the customs police and $3 to the others," he said. "We have to clear

these charges with the garment factory whose package it is."

Cheat estimated that to get a package through customs paying under-the-table bribes

would cost $100, but to go through official channels would cost between $150 and

$200 because of extra commissions paid on the way. It would also take several days

longer to obtain the goods.

"The garment factories want to clear their cargo under the table as it is much

cheaper and quicker," he said.


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