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Customs man fears for his life

Customs man fears for his life

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,"

he said.

"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

Senate.

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."

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