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Free pass to Thailand gets political in Poipet town

People queue at the Poipet border checkpoint in 2013 in Banteay Meanchey province.
People queue at the Poipet border checkpoint in 2013 in Banteay Meanchey province. Heng Chivoan

Free pass to Thailand gets political in Poipet town

Local authorities in Poipet are grappling with a dilemma of their own making after the ruling party for months footed the bill to make day passes to enter Thailand free for Cambodian vendors – a populist move now complicated by the CPP’s apparent electoral loss in the border town.

Now, with Cambodian People’s Party officials balking at the cost of subsidising the crossing in a commune that no longer supports it, it is unclear who will pick up the tab for what local opposition members characterise as an inappropriate CPP effort to buy votes in the first place.

On Friday, vendors attempting to cross the border were informed that the day pass they required was unavailable, causing a pile-up at the main border checkpoint. Hang Sim, a porter, said authorities did not give them tickets to cross the border.

“Yes, there was some problem, and they did not want to give us tickets. But it seemed OK later on,” he said yesterday.

Immigration Police Chief Sim Sam Ath said the Poipet Town Hall had been printing the tickets, which his officials were handing out for free. With the Cambodia National Rescue Party having won office, the printing stopped on Friday.

The problem stems from a January order in which Provincial Governor Soun Bovor requested border checkpoint and immigration officials temporarily stop charging 1,000 riel (about $0.25) for border passes for people wanting to cross into Thailand, and to instead issue them for free.

“I would like to inform the chief and lieutenant that according to the recommendation of Ke Kim Yan, deputy prime minister, chief of the National Authority for Combating Drugs and head of the [CPP] working group, to not sell tickets temporarily,” the diktat, signed on January 12, reads.

The directive does not say where funds to make up for the lost revenue would come from.

For the last five months, vendors have been crossing the border free of cost, until Friday’s incident. In the recently concluded commune elections, the CPP lost control of Poipet commune to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Poipet Governor Ngor Meng Chuon said local CPP commune councillors had been paying for the printing of the tickets. If they refused to continue paying, having lost the elections, Meng Chuon said it was up to the CNRP to foot the bill.

“In case the [new] commune chief or councillors cannot produce the tickets, cannot afford it, or don’t have the capacity to produce it, we will consider about this and find other sources to solve this problem,” he said.

Deputy Provincial Governor Om Chantha said Meng Chuon, in his capacity as town governor, had also been chipping in for the passes and had recently complained about the costs incurred. Chantha added that provincial authorities were now considering assisting Meng Chuon.

Ker Samphors, a CNRP executive committee official for the province, said Provincial Governor Bovor held a meeting last week in which he announced that money for producing the passes had dried up and that he was personally spending $1,500 to cover the costs for 10 days.

Apparent CNRP commune councillor-elect Kang Sakhoeun said the issuing of such passes was the responsibility of immigration officials, and that the move was being used by the CPP as an election ploy. “I cannot afford it. My party cannot afford it, and it is not in our policy to do the work on behalf of immigration police,” he said.

Local union leader Mang Puthy – who represents some cross-border workers – was harsher, calling the issuing of free passes “corruption”, adding the measure was only taken to get more votes during the commune elections.

He added that the fuss created over the cost of printing suggested that the CPP wanted to begin charging for the pass again.

“They said they paid for the people. I want to ask – why is this the business of the commune chief or commune candidates?” he said.

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