A provincial governor canceled border-crossing fees at the Poipet International Border Checkpoint on Thursday in a move that aroused suspicions it was merely attempting to curry favor with locals enflamed by the controversial arrest of a local opposition and labor leader.
Immigration police officers at the checkpoint were ordered to stop taking a 1,000 riel, or about $0.25, fee from Cambodians crossing the border into Thailand, according to a statement signed by Banteay Meanchey governor Soun Bavor.
The statement says the decision was made on the advice of Ke Kim Yan, a deputy prime minister and head of the CPP’s working group in the province.
The fee suspension had nothing to do with the tensions that have resulted from the arrest last month of Mang Puthy, the deputy head of the CNRP in Poipet City, who was charged with aggravated intentional violence for allegedly driving his SUV into Chhean Pisith, deputy chief of the Poipet checkpoint, said deputy provincial governor Um Reatrey.
Rather, the sudden policy change was another government effort to alleviate poverty, he said. “The government learned that Cambodians are facing livelihood problems, so they don’t need to pay a fee every time they cross the border.”
“The personal issue is not involved,” he said, declining to explain the decision’s timing.
Video footage of the incident posted on Facebook shows Mr. Pisith falling dramatically to the ground despite little to no contact with Mr. Puthy’s vehicle.
The official, who donned a neck brace after the incident, was supposedly rushed to Thailand for medical treatment, but security footage was released a few days later apparently showing him comfortably walking through a guesthouse lobby in Thailand.
Mr. Puthy faces a possible prison sentence of up to five years. His lawyer said he would have a bail hearing at the Appeal Court today.
Sorng Sakorn, a fellow labor organizer of informal workers in Banteay Meanchey, said he didn’t buy the government’s explanation for the suspended fee.
“The government is appeasing people to stop [them] feeling angry after Din Puthy was arrested,” he said, using another name used by Mr. Puthy.
While he acknowledged the change would benefit many poor people who cross the border regularly for work, the reason was purely political, he said.
“I believe that, for the government, it has a political benefit because the election is coming,” Mr. Sakorn said.
Mr. Sakorn said protesters, who have rallied behind Mr. Puthy since his arrest and the release of the video of Mr. Pisith’s flop, will continue to back him because of his longtime advocacy on behalf of Cambodians working along the border.
Sam Khoeun, 58, a cart puller who has been crossing the border six to seven times a day for 15 years, said she would not end her support of the activist.
“I will join protests for Mr. Puthy. He normally helps us when the Thai authorities insult us,” she said, adding that she nevertheless welcomed the end of the border-crossing fee.
“I hope they will stop taking it forever, because sometimes they announce it will stop, but it starts again,” she said.
odom@cambodiadaily.com
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