In Teuk Thla Market, a warren of alleyways off of Russian Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, bundles of plastic batons and pistol holsters dangle from storefronts like bunches of bananas.
Racks of khaki slacks and shirts, stacks of peaked caps with patent leather brims and navy nylon vests with reflective strips advertising “POLICE” all testify to a fact of life in the Cambodian security services: being a cop or a soldier in the Kingdom means spending a little money.
Teuk Thla is a clearinghouse where soldiers, police and occasionally criminals haggle over all things police- and military-related, from footwear to stun guns, and even insignia of rank.
Interviews with buyers and sellers alike reveal a vicious cycle. Government officials in charge of procurement sell state-owned gear to vendors. They, in turn, sell it on to other police who flock to the market after finding themselves under-equipped partly because much of the gear intended for standard issue winds up in Teuk Thla instead.
“The reason we have come to buy the military clothes, shoes or hats here is because the ration [of clothes and equipment] that is provided by our military commander or from the Ministry of National Defense is not enough,” said Sath Bunthoeun, a soldier stationed in Kampong Speu province, who was on a recent shoe-buying trip to Teuk Thla.
Bunthoeun said he and his comrades come to Teuk Thla about twice a year to supplement the often incomplete kits issued by their units.
“According to military policy, every soldier will be provided with a set of military clothes, a hat and shoes twice every year, but when we receive it, we don’t get all those things as announced,” he said.
“Sometimes, we receive only the clothes and hat, but are left without shoes. And sometimes, we receive merely the clothes and shoes, but are left without a hat or a hammock or the related equipment. So it is not enough to use,” he continued.
“So to make up for the lack of that necessary equipment, we have to look to buy them from the market.”
Ironically enough, the goods that Buntheoun and others are forced to buy in Teuk Thla originate in their departments’ own storehouses.
Soeun Chamroeun*, 34, a police officer working for the Ministry of Interior, said that he often buys his National Police uniforms, hats, shoes and other items from Teuk Thla, because the standard issue goods he’s given by the ministry are second-rate.
“My unit has distributed to me only poor quality clothes, shoes and hats, but they have sold the good quality ones to the market,” he said. “If I want to get the good quality clothes and other related gear, I have to find it and buy it from the market.”
An officer at the Ministry of National Defense, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that at least some of the military goods funnelled into Teuk Thla were from high-ranking officials taking advantage of Cambodia’s notoriously over-inflated soldier statistics to requisition surplus goods.
“As far as I know, the reason why military clothes and kit are still being sold illegally at markets … is because of corrupt high-ranking-military officials, because they have inflated soldier numbers,” he said.
“Now, they still have a lot of names of ghost soldiers [on the rolls] at the ministry. The military clothes and other military materiel that are sold at markets … were intended for the ghost soldiers,” he added.
The officer gave an example of a unit with 800 soldiers whose commander had listed their number at 1,000. The 200 spare sets of uniforms and equipment, he said, were sold on the black market.
But it isn’t just soldiers and policemen taking advantage of the goods on offer at Teuk Thla.
Ou Borom*, a 35-year-old moto taxi driver, bought a military hat and T-shirt from a shop in Phsar Teuk Thla last week.
“I am a civilian, and a motordop. The reason I bought the military hat and T-shirt to wear is because I like it,” he said, before acknowledging that the gear came with other benefits as well.
“On the other hand, in case I forget my helmet and I’m driving my motorbike in Phnom Penh, I will wear the military hat and traffic police will not stop me because they’ll think that I’m in the military,” he added.
However, not everyone has such relatively benign motivations for decking themselves out like an authority figure.
Fake cops are arrested on a regular basis, said Lieutenant General Chhay Sinarith, deputy director-general of the General Commissariat of the National Police.
“According to the reports from our municipal and provincial police, due to the sales of National Police and military clothes, there have been many people passing themselves off as policemen or military or military police, and they bought those uniforms or clothes from markets,” he said.
“They wore police or military clothes in order to threaten or beat other people, and created problems in their communities.”
Most vendors at Teuk Thla acknowledge that it is illegal for civilians to buy the goods they sell – as it is to sell them, in fact – but they maintain that they aren’t the ones to judge.
The returns are worth the risk, they say, especially when they can pay police informants to tip them off to upcoming raids.
“I pay $30 every month to a local police officer to alert me in advance if there are military police or police coming to crack down on my sales,” said vendor Huy Kunthear*, who said her stock came from corrupt commanders out in the provinces, as well as military drop-outs.
“In general, I sell these things to the public, but most of my clients are those who work in the military, military police or police,” she added.
Hem Nhim*, another vendor, said that he, too, pays $20 to $30 a month to local police and military police to avoid crackdowns.
“I think that this business has been good for my family, but it is not safe, because selling this military kit is prohibited,” he said, adding that he “will continue this business forever,” or at least as long as authorities fail to clamp down on it.
That could take a while. Fellow vendor Hun Sopheap* said she has been selling in Teuk Thla for more than 15 years, and that like Nhim, she found it to be lucrative, generally earning anywhere from $20 to just over $30 on a typical day.
“I decided to sell all types of these things because it was a good business for me, and I could make a good living every day,” she said
Her inventory, she added, comes in once every month or two from people who identified themselves as military and police officers working in the logistics units of the ministries of National Defense and Interior.
Lieutenant General Sinarith of the National Police told the Post that the production and purchase of uniforms and kit falls under the Ministry of Interior’s Logistics and Financial Department.
“But regarding the selling of National Police uniforms or other related gear in the markets, I do not know where they got them from,” he said.
San Chey, a coordinator for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, said the proliferation of illegal goods at Teuk Thla could be attributed to a breakdown in authorities’ management of resources, and was a waste of government money.
“I think it’s the worst case; it shows poor management in the military and police sector,” he said. “And [it’s] not only uniforms. I was told that some guns and bullets were sold secretly there.”
Some Teuk Thla vendors did acknowledge that guns and ammunition were available at the market, but said they weren’t as easily purchased as other equipment.
“The state institutions, especially from the military and police, they look like they’re taking no steps to solve this,” Chey added.
Multiple officials in the Ministry of Interior, the National Military Police, the Ministry of National Defense and its Military Logistics Department could not be reached for comment.
However, Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, said this week that vendors caught selling military clothing or equipment could face up to six months in prison, and that for civilians, even wearing so much as a military or police hat was “strictly prohibited”.
To curb the fraudulent use of official clothing and equipment – as well as illegal guns – police are told to check on those wearing incomplete uniforms, Kheng said.
Teuk Thla, he continued, was the site of perennial crackdowns, but even so, vendors were back to business as usual within days.
“Our National Military Police go to crack down on this market at least three times every year, but when we raid those vendors seem to know about our activity in advance, so they moved their goods from their shop and escaped from the market,” he said, adding that a recent raid had resulted in some arrests.
“But it was strange,” he continued. “A few days after our police crackdown, the vendors started selling those goods at their shops [again].”
* Names have been changed.
Additional reporting by Stuart White.
In 2011, Cambodian-Australian Tim Kimsuth was given two years in prison for impersonating a two-star general. He was found to be in possession of the uniform and badges of rank during a search of his apartment after he was arrested with his driver and bodyguard, who were using an M-16 to threaten a car they were passing. Kimsuth told the court at the time that he had bought the get-up for about $30 at Teuk Thla not for nefarious purposes, but simply “because [he] liked it”.
The same month, a former adviser to Senate President Chea Sim, Ponlork Ho, was convicted of presenting himself as a three-star general as part of a massive fraud scheme he perpetuated along with two co-defendants. He also bought his uniform and insignia of rank from Teuk Thla Market.