More than 40 taxi drivers protested on Wednesday after each being fined 2 million riel ($500) for transporting passengers despite COVID-19 travel bans.
The group was arrested earlier this month and sent to a quarantine center in Pur Senchey district, from which they were released Wednesday. Phnom Penh was under a citywide lockdown until May 5, and some red zones, or highly infectious areas, remain subject to bans on movement and transportation.
Sim Duong, 33, a taxi driver from Prey Veng province, said he joined the protest because he has no money to pay the fine and disputed the terms of his arrest.
“The other taxi drivers and I were quarantined for 19 days and they ordered us to pay 2 million riel each, but we do not have money to pay because we did not earn anything for 19 days,” said Duong.
He said that when they were first detained, the drivers were told they would only be quarantined and educated; none expected to be fined, he said.
“I just drove across Veng Sreng boulevard to deliver goods for my customers and I was detained by police officials,” Duong said. “I did not transport customers from the red zones.”
He said in total 42 taxi drivers Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, Kampot, Tbong Khmum, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, and other provinces were detained, quarantined, and fined.
The protests, however, had little success with authorities telling the group their cars wouldn’t be returned unless they paid.
“I have no choice, so I paid them because I need my car for driving to earn money to pay the bank,” said Duong.
He added that he borrowed $40,000 from the bank for six years to purchase his car and that he pays $600 each month.
In addition to the drivers, over a hundred passengers — most of them garment workers — have been detained and quarantined after trying to leave restricted red zones since May 6, Choam Chao 1 commune police chief Say Chamroeun said on Monday.
Khan Ravy, 31, a taxi driver from Tbong Khmum province said he asked not to pay the fine as he had no money.
“I did not drive for 19 days, so I lost more than 1 million riel in income for those days,” Ravy said.
Like Duong, Ravy said that he did not pick up passengers from the red zones but only drove through Veng Sreng boulevard to provide goods for his customers.
Another driver, Orng Sithan, 48, said he paid the fine immediately because he was eager to get back on the road.
“I allowed my wife to pay the authorities 2 million riel because we do not want more lost time and income,” Sithan said. “If we were to not pay the fine, they would not allow us to take our car.”
He said that he borrowed $14,000 for 10 years, and owed $233 on his loan each month.
“If I do not transport customers and goods more, I will not have money to pay the bank,” said Sithan.
San Sok Seiha, Phnom Penh police spokesman, said fines were based on the decision by the Phnom Penh Municipal Authority but that all were fined for transporting or going to transport residents out of the red zones.
On May 10, Sar Thet, Phnom Penh police chief confirmed that more than 40 vans had been seized and the drivers and passengers sent to quarantine.
“For taxi drivers, do not think only of your own benefits — if we transport [people from red zones], we will have the highest risk,” he said at the time. “Please understand, because we cannot think only of our personal benefits, or it will impact the benefits of all of society.”
Thet said that those who had been detained would only be warned and educated, adding that all their vehicles would be returned after they had undergone their two-week quarantine.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the non-governmental People’s Centre for Development and Peace said that if those taxi drivers did not know that when they entered that area they would be fined — and if they did not have the intention to transport citizens from the red zones — they shouldn’t be fined.
“They should not be fined because they were quarantined for 19 days already,” Kim Eng said, adding that most drivers will face difficulty paying such a high fine.
Kim Eng added that he appeals to all taxi drivers to cooperate with the authorities because it is risky to transport people out of high infection zones as it may spread infection in the provinces or to the drivers themselves.
“The important thing is that they must think about their health and safety to flee away from COVID-19,” said Kim Eng.
Met Measpheakdey, city hall spokesman, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.