The traffic police officers here receive a salary, albeit a low one consistent with the paltry pay that the vast majority of Cambodians receives, if they are fortunate to have a job.
The police might be forgiven for thinking that the government pays them to work, so work they do when moved to stop slouching on the job in order to attempt an arrest of motorists who break the law. Although their salary is just part of the job’s rewards, they paradoxically seem to be less than dedicated to pursuing offenders.
The police in Phnom Penh are notorious for stopping cars, motorcycles and motorbikes so randomly that I sometimes pause to marvel at the arbitrariness of their entrapments at street corners and along boulevards. I also am amazed never once to have seen them give chase to those who speed away. It can prove to be entertaining to see officers flailing helplessly on the side of the road in vain efforts to cause a few of the vehicles to pull over. This despite their motorcycles parked beside them.
Everyone believes that the chief reason for officers being motivated to stop offenders is not a high-minded urge to impose the State’s punishment. It is to line the police officers’ pockets. Until recently, small fines of a few dollars or less have been condoned, demanded and surrendered on the spot without paperwork.
So much for the rule of the law.
Acknowledging the ineffectiveness of the traffic enforcers, the government has taken a step that boggles my mind: It has imposed new requirements such as mandatory helmets for moto passengers. In other words, to collect more money add more violations instead of imposing more discipline on the police.
One offense will be driving without a license. However, the requirement, which was supposed to take effect in January, was suspended almost immediately after the administration couldn’t figure out how to implement it. Then, Prime Minister Hun Sen modified the measure to say drivers of two-wheeled motor vehicles with engines smaller than 125cc were exempt.
To give you some idea of the scope of the law, the fact is that there are 1.2 million registered motorbikes in Phnom Penh. By the end of last year, only 70,000 licenses had been issued; that was before the new law took effect, though I doubt the statistics have changed much.
The best news for the police is that the fines have been raised considerably. Other good news arrived last week, when it was reported that the Interior minister was giving them bonuses costing him $3,500 per day personally! The newspaper story appeared one day and there was no follow-up, no public indignation, no government condemnation, no investigation of how a bureaucrat had so much money, nothing more.
There occurred on Jan. 1 a key, if probably ineffective, break from the past. Since then officers have been permitted only to issue tickets, not to — how to say this? — encourage drivers to hand over what it takes to be permitted to go on their way without further complications.
Still, the police now get to receive 70 per cent of any fine for the tickets they issue, up from 50 per cent until the end of last year. With official approval. Really. And whether they also collect money on the spot is a fair question that I am sure already has been answered, with past being precedent.
Can the boost in fines and added requirements motivate the police to be more rigorous in stopping lawbreakers? Unlikely.
To my mind, the changes this year amount to nothing more than tossing in the towel and demonstrating the government’s incompetence? Or perhaps it reveals an astonishing endorsement of corrupt practices? In Southeast Asia, such is the way of life.