19 Feb 2021
For decades, Cambodians fleeing successive autocratic governments have found sanctuary in Australia. But over the last five years, some of the current regime’s closest allies have begun to follow its victims to the Land Down Under, taking with them the vast wealth that flows to those with proximity to power in Phnom Penh.
Radio Free Asia has identified Australian assets worth tens of millions of dollars held by 14 individuals from four of Cambodia’s most powerful families.
Comprised of real estate and business interests, the Australian assets largely came to be owned by family members of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senator Lau Meng Khin, Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth, and Land Management Minister Chea Sophara in the five years since 2015.
Divide and conquer
The summer of 2015 marked the start of a carrot-and-stick campaign by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, to bring the Khmer diaspora to heel, perhaps most pointedly in Australia.
Although not quite defeated, the CPP had taken a kicking in the 2013 general elections, thanks in large part to the opposition enjoying a campaign war chest bankrolled by donations from the diaspora. Determined not to repeat the humiliation, the CPP established “working groups” to bring overseas Cambodians onside, or failing that to bully them into silence.
Announced in an official circular in June 2015, in Australia the policy saw the CPP dividing the country into seven zones, with each zone overseen by a president drawn from Phnom Penh’s ruling class.
The presidents’ job is to oversee party activities in their zone, be that the throwing of banquets to curry favour with the local diaspora community or summoning large groups to show support for visiting Cambodian government officials in the hope of drowning out critical protestors.
However, Cambodian-Australian activists say that these activities are merely the palatable face of a policy that has seen community members intimidated and even threatened with death.
Cash follows cadres
Australia’s second-most populous city Melbourne is home to one of the country’s largest Khmer communities — and some of the CPP’s loudest critics.
The CPP zone president there is Lau Vann – deputy commander of the Cambodian army’s notorious Brigade 70 and scion of perhaps the most powerful family in the Khmer business community in Australia. The family is presided over by his father, Senator Lau Meng Khin, and step-mother, Choeung Sopheap. Sopheap is a successful tycoon in her own right described as a business partner of Hun Sen’s wife in a 2007 cable sent from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to Washington.
In October 2015, four months after Vann was announced CPP zone president for Melbourne, property deeds show his wife Choeung Sokuntheavy, who is also his step-sister, bought a luxury apartment on the 24th floor of one of the city’s most exclusive tower blocks for 4 million Australian dollars (US$2.9 million).
In the years since, Vann and Sokuntheavy have used the apartment as their home address when founding two Australian businesses, including a Melbourne bakery run since December 2019 by their daughter, Lau Jia Zhen.
Jia Zhen, who turned 20 in October, got engaged earlier this year to Aun Pornmonireach, 23, son of Cambodian Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth and businesswoman Im Paulika. The young couple’s families already had extensive Cambodian business ties to each other, and both had participated in the trend for wealthy Cambodians to park money in Australia.
The finance minister and his wife made international headlines in 2019 when Reuters revealed they had acquired Cypriot citizenship by investment. RFA can reveal that in early 2018 their son, Pornmonireach, also applied for Cypriot citizenship. All applicants are obliged to announce their intention to acquire citizenship in one of the island nation’s newspapers. Pornmonireach chose to announce his in Haravgi. The fate of his application is unknown.
In July 2014, Paulika spent A$2.1 million (US$1.5 million) on an apartment in Sydney’s One Central Park, property deeds show. A prestige development with hanging gardens and a shopping mall, Pornmonireach lived at One Central Park while he was studying and described the building in a piece of coursework as “a symbol of a postmodern age.”
When Paulika founded an Australian company in 2016 – the now defunct Camtrade Enterprises Pty Ltd – she gave Phnom Penh rather than One Central Park as her address. But when Pornmonireach registered a company as a vehicle to own a “Fun House” Chinese restaurant franchise in 2018, he listed the Sydney apartment as his home.
On the opposite end of Lau Vann’s family tree, his half-sister Lau Sok Huy (who also goes by Michelle Lau), her brother Lau Yao Zhong (who goes by Alex), and her husband Pich Aphirak all own or manage multiple Australian businesses established since 2015.
Aphirak’s brother-in-law is Hun Manet, commander of the Cambodian army, eldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and widely tipped as his successor. Manet’s cousin Hun To has long been the roguish playboy of Cambodia’s ruling family and nowhere is his reputation as a rogue greater than in Australia.
Hun To featured prominently in The Sting, a 2012 book by investigative journalist Nick McKenzie about Australian law enforcement’s attempts to tackle the international drugs trade. According to McKenzie, in 2003 Hun To was a target of an Australian police investigation into the smuggling of heroin from Cambodia to Australia in timber shipments.
McKenzie claimed Hun To only evaded arrest thanks to the intervention of Australian embassy officials in Phnom Penh seeking to avoid a diplomatic incident, but that his Cambodian-Australian underling and bodyguard, Thai Phany, was convicted over an attempt to import 300 grams of heroin from Cambodia as part of the same operation.
When confronted with the accusations in 2012, Hun To claimed to have no connections to the drugs trade and even went so far as to deny knowing Phany. That claim would be difficult for him to repeat today. Phany is married to his cousin Hun Chanthol.
Until this year, Hun To did not officially have a business presence in Australia. However, his wife, Jackie Thai, a relative of Phany, has owned multiple houses around Melbourne in recent decades – most recently in 2016 dropping just shy of A$1 million ($809,000) on two adjoining lots where she is building an enormous family home, property deeds show.
She also established her first Australian business in 2015, founding two more in 2020, including one, J & H Capital Investment Pty Ltd, with her controversial husband.
In September 2016, Australian real estate trade publications were abuzz with the news that a couple “from one of Cambodia’s ruling families” had bought a waterfront property in the leafy Sydney suburb of Clonarf. The sale was headline news because it’s A$11 million (US$8.1 million) price tag was 26 percent higher than the neighbourhood’s previous record of A$8.7 million.
Last year, the buyers – Mongkol Phara and Tao Madina – were revealed by Mother Nature Cambodia, an NGO, to be the son and daughter-in-law of Land Management Minister Chea Sophara. Noting that Phara’s official salary as chief of cabinet in his father’s ministry was unlikely to cover the US$8.1 million purchase, the NGO called on Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit to investigate where the money came from.
By Jack Davies, Radio Free Asia, 16 February 2021
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