On the side of a well-trafficked street in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, a man with a razor blade bends over a small rectangle of sheet metal overlaid with a vinyl stencil.
As letters and numbers are lifted away, the plate begins to take on a familiar appearance – a line of Khmer script at the top, followed by a five-digit numeric sequence below and “RCAF” at the bottom, in a plain, bold font.
After a strafing of white spray paint and a few minutes in the sun, the vinyl is peeled away revealing a standard Royal Cambodian Armed Forces licence plate on the military’s distinctive blue-over-red background. The cost, for any paying customer with an interest in buying it, is $6.25.
Driving a car bearing the official insignia of the police or military is punishable under the Cambodian Penal Code with a prison term ranging from one month to one year, and a fine of up to $500.
In fact, two men were sentenced to three years in prison earlier this month for impersonating police officers after being caught wearing fake police uniforms, carrying a fake gun and driving a motorbike with fake police plates.
Nonetheless, fake plates can be bought as easily as a “Beware of Dog” sign, and business is as brisk as ever in the trade, sellers like Sambath*, a 10-year veteran, said.
“I think that although it is an illegal business, it is a good way to make money to support my family,” he said.
“There are at least between five and 10 people coming every day to get fake number plates to put on their motorbikes or cars from my place, and on some good days there are up to 30 people a day.”
Sambath offers a range of plates – RCAF, military police, National Police, civil servant, NGO, press – all of which cost between $4.50 and $10.
“As I have noticed, most of the plate numbers that they have ordered … are RCAF or [military police] or National Police,” he said, adding that the business did have a bit of overhead. “For the safety of business, [every day] I have to pay at least 10,000 riel [about $2.50] to customs police and other related police.”
The motivations for buying fake plates vary with the buyers, but it’s no surprise that price is one of them. The fees for licensing vehicles have proved controversial in the past, with the high fees for properly registering motorbikes, leading demonstrators to take to the streets and clash with police in 2009.
One local businessman said he recently paid $800 for an untaxed, unregistered bike. The same bike, if he had paid the proper fees, would have cost $2,000, he said. The perceived impunity that comes with an RCAF plate sweetened the deal, he added.
“The reason why I had the RCAF number plate made to put on my motorbike was because it protects my motorbike from traffic-police checks or arrest,” Vichea said.
“When I put on the RCAF number plate, the traffic police will think that I am a military officer or competent authority, so they will not stop and check my motorbike.”
A 38-year-old motodop said that avoiding police fines was a chief motivation of his as well, but that going through the proper channels was too expensive and time-consuming.
“I pay only $5, and can get it within a few hours,” he said. “But if I apply or get an official number plate from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, it’s very expensive – $35, and it takes 30 days.”
But civilians trying to evade the law aren’t the only ones buying plates, as evidenced by a man who identified himself as a National Police officer as he bought a fake National Police plate.
“I’m getting a fake National Police plate number because I could not get an official police plate from my police unit,” he said. “I applied for it almost a year ago, but I couldn't get one because I have no money to bribe the corrupt higher-ranking supervisors.
“I put the National Police’s plate on because I wanted to show the public that I was a policeman,” he added.
Major General Him Yan, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s discipline department, and Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, could not be reached for comment on the matter.
However, Captain Chuon Samnang, a traffic police officer at a checkpoint in Sen Sok district, said that there were simply too many vehicles for police to check every one.
Indeed, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport reported last year that vehicle registrations rose nearly 8 per cent from 2011 to 2012 – bringing the total number of licensed vehicles in the country to more than two million.
However, observers said at the time that even then, a large number of vehicles were probably slipping through cracks in the registration process.
Samnang, the traffic cop, said that police typically only check the veracity of a plate when stopping a motorist for an unrelated offence.
“These days, our traffic police do not properly check or control motorbikes’ or vehicles’ number plates to see whether they are real or fake while people are driving down the road, because there are so many motos and cars,” said Samnang, the traffic cop. “If we are busy stopping and checking them, it would cause more traffic jams on the roads.”
As long as that remains the case, plate makers like Tuol Kork district’s Sopheak* will continue to enjoy their day in the sun.
“I think that this is a good business to make money, because no one dares do it,” he said. “I think that as long as there is no strict prevention from the relevant authorities, I will continue doing it forever.”
*Names were changed to protect sources for this story