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Running the gauntlet of 揵lood-suckers?on Route 5

Running the gauntlet of 揵lood-suckers?on Route 5

A pproaching a broken bridge at Mong Russei district, Battambang province, the driver

of a taxi rolled down his window and cracked a smile at a soldier in camouflage uniform.

The driver’s method was understandable — he hoped that showing politeness by smiling

he could get a free passage across the bridge. But it didn’t work. Holding a stack

of 500 riel notes in his left hand, the soldier, in a no-bargaining mood, said bluntly:

“Money talks”.

The taxi-driver reluctantly handed the soldier 1,000 riel, rolled up the window

and said: “The law is on their lips.”

Another driver said of soldiers manning so-called ‘checkpoints’: “All of themhave

a collective duty – to extort money.”

Although it is believed that a sign of peace has begun to prevail in the northwestern

provinces of Battambang and Banteay Mean Chey, traveling on National Route 5 is still

a scary experience. Seemingly, there’s no more fears about rebel attacks on the traffic

– rampant extortion by armed men, on the government side, is the real threat to travelers.

During three consecutive round trips a month ago, Post reporters counted over

50 official and unofficial checkpoints operating on the 410 km stretch from Phnom

Penh to Poipet, the majority of them around Pursat. There is a mixed bag of armed

forces opreating them: local militiamen – in their nice, new blue uniforms which

lend them a greater air of authority, if not discipline – provincial army and police,

military police, Ministry of Interior police, occassionally customs officials, and

sometimes just anybody in dark green shirt or trousers.

At a post near Krokor district, Pursat province, a bamboo pole slings across the

road blocking the traffic – a legitimiate Military Police checkpoint, complete with

red and white sign reading: “Weapons and Explosives Control”.

Huor, a taxi-driver, stops the car but is hesitant to get out. A tough-looking

MP stands in front of his car and Huor realizes that he has to pay. He steps out

and walks to a guard booth on the roadside.

Returned to his wheel, he mumbles: “See, they call it weapons and explosives control

but they don’t even bother having a look [at the car] after receiving 1,000 riel.”

Two years ago, Huor picked up the job as a taxi-driver in defiance of his mother

who wanted to him to study English so he could secure a more stable and profitable

career. Aged 24, apart from avoiding potholes at high speed, the best skill he has

had to learn is dealing with armed men demanding money.

Veng was a soldier in Siem Reap until three years ago when he became a taxi-driver.

He knows how to be gentle and to smile, but still has to pay his way through the

men with guns whom he calls “kings of the road”.

“If my car doesn’t break down, I can take some cash home, aside from that given

to the soldiers. But if the car breaks down, I must take the money back from my wife

to fix it,” he says.

Taxi drivers say the highway robbery that they face is becoming more and more sophiscated:

they suspect that militiamen, not the Khmer Rouge, damage the road and bridges. By

doing so, soldiers can slow the traffic in order to extort money – or, as they put

it, a fee for guiding vehicles around the holes in the road.

One Western military officer agreed, saying he could not believe that the Royal

army continued to blame the KR for blowing up bridges and holes in roads, particularly

on route 5 to Battambang.

“Think about it,” he said. “To crater a road like those you see on the bridges to

Battambang, you have to drill down into the road and create a cavity at the bottom.

“Then you have to pack that cavity with explosives, that creates a blast that

craters the road. If you just leave a fertilizer bomb sitting on the road, it will

blast outwards. All it’d leave is a burn mark.

“So can you imagine the KR lugging fertilizer and engine oil and jack-hammers or

heavy hammers across kilometers of rice paddies in the dead of night, then hammering

away at the road for three hours or so and these [soldiers] who are asleep by the

bridge don’t wake up?

“This is an engineering job, it’s RCAF, and it’s all about money,” he said.

Rarely can a car cross a bridge without paying fees, that’s why every driver has

to have a wad of 100and 200 riel notes ready before setting off from the taxi station.

With a regular squeezed load of 6 passengers charged at 15,000 riel per head, they

said they could pocket less than 20,000 riel at the end of a journey — if they’re

lucky. For those who dare to avoid paying, there are punishments. At a bridge near

Svay Daun Keo district, Pursat, soldiers planted metal spikes in the grass by the

roadside.

A heavily loaded pick-up truck, trying to go round the soldiers on the road without

paying, soon had two flat tires.

The mother of taxi-driver Huor, watching the episode, declares: “ They’re all

blood-suckers. When will Cambodia be rid of this kind of bunch?”

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