Cambodians have a deep-seated disrespect of all laws and regulations unless it involves their hallowed traditional rules of preserving their daughters’ virginity and arranged marriages as well as the ceremonies on all Buddhist holidays, which they celebrate with great aplomb, somber expressions and humble demeanor, alas without great conviction (the elderly Khmer whom I very much respect will hopefully excuse my cynicism).
Much has been written on forums and blogs, not to mention the local newspapers both English-language and Khmer, and the social media, foremost among them that huge advancement of Western civilization and now world-wide culture, Facebook, about the new traffic law, as it is commonly called in online parlance.
I do not want to repeat all those gripes written and otherwise expressed both orally and electronically, but this law is symptomatic of the state of the Cambodian mind in terms of how to live together within certain boundaries and in a civilized manner. Man laid down rules of how to live together in a group, tribe, or later in states since the beginning of time. Without these rules or laws anarchy would rein.
Now to look at Cambodian roads one might get the impression that this sector of Cambodian life is indeed somewhat anarchic, or perhaps only chaotic. But not only there, in fact in most other cases they flout what officialdom had prescribed. They build houses wherever and in any fashion they want, they settle on land without asking who the owner is, they believe they are due a share of something whether they earned it or not. Polygamy is outlawed in Cambodia. Nevertheless, wealthy, mostly elderly, man have a young and beautiful mistress, semi-officially called the second wife or small wife (propuen chong).This attitude and self-righteousness is the cause of and fuels many conflicts. And then, of course, if a law prohibits certain actions there is always money that can pave the way around a law so officials may look the other way or in direct violation of the law even sanction such illegal actions. A good example is the former practice of granting concessions for large pieces of land for rubber plantations. The designated concession may have been a protected natural habitat or national park. But time and again one could find that these old and environmentally valuable trees were cut down in exactly those spots with official approval. The export of precious hardwoods is another example. This has been going for decades and the government is unable to stop it. The more egregious cases of clear violations of the law at the highest level involve people who killed somebody, whether in an accident or otherwise, just come to a settlement with the survivors who then don’t press charges. The same system is ingrained for rapes. The perpetrator simply pays some retribution to the victim and her family and then the prosecutor does not see the need for any official action although a myriad number of laws have been flagrantly ignored and broken. In fact, this constitutes another criminal offense. There is a duty to prosecute, whether or not the civil claim had been settled or not. A crime was committed and this requires a punishment.
But let’s take the recent new traffic law as an example par excellence how things work. The law was passed a year or so ago. One would think plenty of time to educate the population about the new regulations. The majority of traffic is motorcycles. The aim was to curb the many traffic fatalities that afflict the county. The law to wear a helmet had been in place already. Now both driver and pinion rider need to wear one. From now on there are only two adults and one child under 6 (?) allowed on a bike. The government convened a committee to hammer out a strategy on how to implement the new law. They came up with the brilliant idea to use about 1750 policemen nationwide, yes, nationwide, to man traffic posts. In Phnom Penh there are over 1 million registered motorcycles but only approx. 90,000 people with a driver license. Countrywide that number is probably unknown. So all unlicensed drivers would need to get a license. Many of the motorcycles, especially in Sihanoukville, had not been registered as the owner had not paid the import tax and duty for it, a prerequisite for getting it registered. In order to get a license they would all need to take a test and pass it. Those tests are a joke insofar as you practically could not fail. The people supervising the test are there to help you check the right answers if you pass them a little something. But, of course, there is also a fee for the license itself involved.
Now come January 01 police began pulling over cars and motorcycles for infractions of the new law. This being Cambodia it goes without saying that the people who hadn’t had a license did not get one all these months the previous year, notwithstanding the fact that TV had reported on the subject many times. As for the registration, that probably was pretty much unaffordable for most people. So they simply did nothing about it. The rural people simply claimed not to know that a new law even existed – I am sure in some cases that’s even true. According to newspaper reports the police pulled over 80,000 vehicles the first 3 or 4 days and collected an almost similar amount of money. The enforcement provoked a veritable shitstorm on Facebook. As the PM maintains a very active Facebook page he was swamped with comments.
The Prime Minister, lately somewhat suffering from statesman-like credibility because of the Sam Rainsy issue, took it to heart and swiftly rendered some of the sections suspended, e. g. the driver licenses – for motorcycles less than 125 cc none is needed, over 125 cc you need to get one but won’t have to take a test and getting the license is free. So why not have everybody get one? The registration requirement got a moratorium of I believe 6 months. So here you have the parliament who passed a law – this why it is called the legislature, one of the three pillars of democracy – and then you the Prime Minister, part of the executive branch who without even as much as a stroke of the pen but with an announcement on Facebook nixed part of a law. Wouldn’t that have been a job for the parliament? Of course, he did issue an executive order the next day and promised the assembly would later follow up with a change in the law.
So one can now easily understand why the Cambodian population, from the poor ignorant peasant to the well-heeled city dweller, simply doesn’t respect laws. They see how it is simply ignored and has been for decades at all levels of society so why should they comply with regulations that are against their personal, possibly only momentary, interests. During the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea there were strict laws that applied only to the general population. The party hierarchy had always been exempt unless somebody had rubbed somebody higher up the wrong way. After the 1993 elections, the ruling party simply contested the outcome, threatened secession, and managed to stay in power. Impunity is a widely practiced concept. When it served their purpose the law could be interpreted to fit their needs.
How can compliance with the law be taught to the general education – only in schools, right? This will, of course, only work if there is an educational system in place that would know how to do that. But with absenteeism and corruption as much part of a teacher’s life as everywhere else, this could never reach the broader future generation. This has been going on to this day and this is why even, perhaps especially, the younger ones just say, ‘Who cares?’
So it is no wonder that you can hardly see anybody after January 01 on Cambodia’s rural roads wear helmets, let alone the person on the back wearing one too. 3, 4 or even 5 people on one of those small rickety motorbikes are no rarity either. I haven’t been to Phnom Penh lately; reportedly it is slightly different there but in Sihanoukville one cannot see any noticeable change on the streets. Now they are forming a committee to study how to change the new traffic law to encompass the needs of all people. Who drew up the law in the first place and did the members of the assembly deliberate on it at all? Where was the opposition’s wisdom? Didn’t any of that go into the process at all?