Business? As usual.

July 13, 2016

It’s been a strange and febrile week in Phnom Penh: how many times have I written that over the last few years? Last Thursday the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness published an outstandingly good and lavishly annotated report on the financial holdings of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.

Using only information publicly available via the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, the report said that Hun Sen and 26 other members of his extended family owned or part-controlled 114 companies with capital of more than $200 million, including firms with links to major international brands such as Apple, Nokia, Visa, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Durex and Honda.

And these were just the public face of the family’s commercial dealings. Most business in Cambodia isn’t registered. The Hun family’s land holdings were not taken into account, which would boost the value substantially. I’ve heard figures of up to $4 billion.

The report says three of Hun Sen’s children jointly own a power company that sells electricity to the national grid. Two of the country’s biggest petrol station chains are run by companies owned in whole or in part by members of the Hun family. Three popular TV stations, a radio station and one of the most-read Khmer-language newspapers are all run by Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, Hun Mana, who also has shares in the largest mobile phone network and owns a leading bottled-water firm.

The Hun family’s response was predictable: vitriol was poured upon Global Witness and the papers that reported the story. As to refuting any of the actual, you know, facts: well, they managed to miss out on that. Instead daughter Hun Mana accused Global Witness of “try[ing] to tarnish my Father [sic] reputation” ahead of next year’s elections. “Anyhow, we thank you for your destructive efforts, which as a consequence will help my father in the coming election as they are all lies and deceitful to confuse the public about what my Father has accomplished.” Hun Sen himself put a picture of the immediate family on Facebook doing shots. Which is also confusing.

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Meanwhile a government-approved news source published a cartoon based on a Nazi cartoon originally published in 1943, but with the heads of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin replaced with The Phnom Penh Post, The Cambodia Daily and Global Witness. I don’t really understand what they’re trying to get at with this: is the government trying to align itself with the Nazis? Do they not remember how that worked out for Hitler in 1945?

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Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told local media that “If you are not professional, we will take action on that one.” He went on: ‘“I don’t want the messenger to get killed, my friend,” he said with a laugh,’ according to the Cambodia Daily.

And lo and behold, on Sunday morning local independent political analyst Dr Kem Ley was shot twice, in the back and the back of the head, while drinking his morning coffee in a petrol station on a major junction in central Phnom Penh. He was 45 years old, married, with four children, and another on the way.

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Kem Ley had recently criticised Hun Sen’s family following the release of the Global Witness report, telling VOA Khmer that the report provided clear information about how Cambodia really works and should be used to benefit the country through investigations by the anti-corruption unit, the National Audit Authority and the National Assembly.

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The alleged gunman was quickly arrested. He apparently told police his name was Choub Samlab, which means “meet to kill” in Khmer. The 38-year-old said he killed Kem Ley because he owed him $3,000.

There are a number of inconsistencies here. How an itinerant farmer came to lend one of the country’s leading political analysts a large amount of money is confusing. How he thought that shooting him (with a $2,500 pistol) would get him his cash back is also a point of discussion. Why none of either parties’ families or friends had heard of the loan is a possible issue. But the government has promised a full and independent investigation. So that’s all right then.

It’s not as if full and independent investigations have failed before in Cambodia, as in the shootings of labour rights activist Chea Vichea in 2004 or environmentalist Chut Vutty in 2012. So the country is on edge right now. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. The funeral, in a week or so, is likely to be a potential flashpoint. We’ll be watching closely.

 

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