Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when the cops catch you?

Rith (name changed), an elderly 65-year-old gentleman, was afflicted by a syndrome that no longer allowed him to drive a car himself. It had gotten so bad that at one point he had an attack of dizziness while driving and had to stop in the middle of the street. He was completely oblivious to the fact that just at that very moment the PM’s motorcade was coming down that street. The bodyguard details immediately suspected some sinister plot and approached the stopped car with drawn guns. Finding no plot to kill the PM, they swiftly moved the car to the curb and the motorcade proceeded. This happened a little over two years ago.

Since his condition didn’t improve, he decided to hire a driver. He owned one of those Mercedes S320ies at the time. The driver seemingly was a professional who had worked for an Okhna as driver/bodyguard. All these two years everything went well. There were no problems with the man, and obviously he thought that when Rith changed his car to a Lexus LX470 that improved his stature as well. (The Mercedes was too prone to breakdowns what with road conditions in Cambodia.)

A month or so ago, Rith decided to sell his Lexus as he just didn’t see why he would have to spend more than $25 a day on gas alone, and that was for driving in the city only. I occasionally used that Lexus with driver myself to drive into the countryside with business associates and easily spent $200 on gas. He decided to go for a smaller more reasonable car and got a 2007, you guessed it, Camry. Mind you, this car is not bad at all and it is the car of choice in Cambodia. At $27,000 it was a bit on the expensive side, but what can you do as long as the Cambodian government thinks high import duties and luxury taxes of a cumulative 115.325% are appropriate.

The driver, though, seemed to think that was beneath him and quit his job claiming he was busy with his family’s farm in the countryside. Rith hired a new driver but being a suspicious person didn’t quite trust him. In the end, he called the original driver and asked him back. After all, he had been reliable and trustworthy the past two years.

So one day recently he sent him to one of those Cambodian car washes. When the driver didn’t come back after some 40 minutes, he tried to call him but couldn’t get through. The phone was turned off. Now being the suspicious man that he is he had had GPS tracking system installed in all his cars; so the Camry had one too. He quickly checked it on his laptop and to his surprise found that the car was nowhere near on its way to him but was going in the direction of the Ministry of the Interior. The next thought was, ‘That guy is stealing my car.’ He called someone of his family who picked him up, followed the car, and drove him there immediately. He arrived just at the moment when a police officer was about to hand over money for the purchase of the car.

‘What are you doing with my car here?’ To which the police officer replied that the driver was selling it to him for $12,000. ‘Hey, this is my car.’ He produced his registration and ID-card. They promptly arrested the driver.

Now here is where the whole story gets a little murky. The police obviously wanted to pay in Khmer currency. So $12,000 is about KHR 48,000,000 and that’s quite a bundle. On top of it, it was fake money.

Rith was wondering whether the police had entrapped the guy by posing as potential buyers. Because there must be something wrong if somebody wants to sell a 2007 Camry for a paltry $12,000 in Cambodia. On the other hand, the police might sure have a way of producing a new set of ownership documents with which they could re-sell the car either here or ship it to Vietnam. From what I hear smuggling cars into Vietnam is still going on as unabated as in the 1990ies. There is no way of knowing what was behind it, or how the driver just happened to contact or know this police officer.

What now followed was the typical Cambodian dance. The police said if you want to bring charges, we need to keep the car. However, if you want to take it home right now, you need to compensate us for time and effort with $3,000. Whaaat???

Rith has family members working at the Ministry of Interior. Infuriated, he told them the story but they said, ‘Uncle Rith, calm down, bargain it down to $1,000, and be done with it. Because if you don’t they will keep the car as evidence, as they have every right, file formal charges against the driver, and it might take weeks before you see that car again.’ At his age, he had seen a lot and knew, of course, that was the way things operate in Cambodia. So he reluctantly started negotiating and they arrived at $1,500 in fees. He declined to file charges against the driver because that would exactly have entailed that interminable legal process.

So, bad boys, even when the police catch you that doesn’t mean you go to jail (although the driver spent one night in police custody). By good fortune or lucky circumstances, you just might go free despite the (attempted) crime.

The next day, when Rith picked up his car and the driver was released, the driver, his wife, and his child prostrated themselves before him and asked for forgiveness. Will he have learned a lesson?

When I heard this story I was flabbergasted. The driver knew the car had a GPS system installed. Although he probably thought that Rith was a frail old man now who wasn’t really agile both mentally and physically any more, he also knew that Rith was not without connections in the higher government hierarchy. Nevertheless, he tried to steal that car. Perhaps he was desperate for money, or in his mind the opportunity was too good to pass up. We won’t know. As for the police, if you aren’t a really big wheel this is how they work. And a big wheel’s driver probably won’t dare steal his car anyway, now will he?

1 comment:

virginia proud said...

Hi, I stumbled across your blog today and have been enjoying your entries - this one in particular. I'm a serial expat, stuff like this really interests me. I've only been to Vietnam and Cambodia as a tourist, about four years ago. It didn't turn out to be what I expected at all. Some of my stranger experiences - not odd at all I now realise - have kept me interested in the country and its people long after I moved on. Thanks for sharing your experiences.