Khmer Riche – How relatives and allies of Cambodia’s leader amassed wealth overseas
17 Oct 2019

Cambodia’s long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, had gathered athletes at his imposing office for a televised pep talk. “I don’t want to mention politics,” he began quietly.

But he couldn’t help himself. It was December 2017. The main opposition party had just been outlawed, the latest move in Hun Sen’s campaign to eradicate his political rivals. The United States and European Union were threatening sanctions, and Hun Sen had a message for them.

“Just do it now if you are brave enough,” he taunted, bristling with outrage. There was no point in the West trying to seize the foreign assets of Cambodian officials, he went on, because they “wouldn’t be so damn stupid as to keep their assets overseas.”

But a Reuters investigation shows that those closest to Hun Sen have done exactly that. Family members and key police, business and political associates have overseas assets worth tens of millions of dollars, and have used their wealth to buy foreign citizenship – a practice Hun Sen has decried as unpatriotic and at times has sought to outlaw.

Among those who have acquired or applied for European Union passports through a citizenship for sale arrangement in Cyprus are: Hun Sen’s niece and her husband, who is Cambodia’s national police chief; the country’s most powerful business couple, who are old family friends; and the finance minister, a long-time Hun Sen adviser.

Photos on social media also show Hun Sen’s relatives enjoying luxurious European lifestyles – boating in Capri, skiing in Verbier, partying in Ibiza – which are at odds with the prime minister’s self-styled image as the humble leader of ordinary Cambodians.

Hun Sen is 67 and has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for more than three decades. He has jailed or exiled political rivals, shut down media outlets and crushed street protests. Only three men have controlled their countries for longer: the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo. If Hun Sen stepped down tomorrow, Vladimir Putin would have to rule Russia for another 15 years to match his time in power.

Yet challenges remain for Hun Sen. Popular dissatisfaction still simmers, say political analysts. In February, responding to his crackdown, the European Union began a process that could suspend Cambodia’s special trade preferences, potentially damaging industries that employ hundreds of thousands of workers. The country’s political and business elite is on edge, a government insider told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Everyone is making an escape plan,” he said.

Hun Sen’s government didn’t respond to questions from Reuters for this article. Hun Sen’s relatives and associates also chose not to respond, with the exception of one member of the extended family. Hun Panhaboth, the son of another niece, defended his lifestyle in messages sent to Reuters through his Facebook page. An Instagram photo shows him driving a Mercedes while holding a fistful of banknotes. “I really don’t see the harm in that anyways,” he said.

AN ESCAPE ROUTE

One Cambodian with overseas assets is the prime minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng. Photos posted on Instagram by a family nanny helped lead Reuters to a posh apartment in central London, situated only a few hundred meters from the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Hun Kimleng bought the apartment in 2010 for £1.95 million ($2.5 million), according to official property records. It could now be worth at least £3.5 million, estimates the real estate website Zoopla. She also owns a multi-million-dollar apartment in a luxury condo in Singapore, according to the Singapore Land Authority.

In 2016, she became a citizen of a foreign country: Cyprus.

Hun Sen has frequently denounced his political rivals for obtaining second passports, once declaring them “an escape route from difficulties in Cambodia.” His niece’s Cypriot citizenship is confirmed by a confidential document sent by Cyprus’s Ministry of Interior to its cabinet, which Reuters has seen.

Getting a Cypriot passport also makes the niece a citizen of the European Union, which Cyprus joined in 2004. This gives her the right to live, work and travel without visas in 28 EU countries.

Becoming a Cypriot isn’t cheap: It involves an investment of at least €2 million ($2.2 million). Between 2013 and 2018, the country granted citizenship to 3,200 foreigners under its Cyprus Investment Programme, raking in €6.6 billion.

The Cyprus interior ministry document confirming Hun Kimleng’s citizenship is dated 21 November 2017. It also recommends that the cabinet grant citizenship to her husband, Neth Savoeun, and two of their grown-up daughters. The cabinet always accepts the ministry’s recommendation, Cyprus’s interior minister told Reuters.

Neth Savoeun is Cambodia’s powerful national police chief, presiding over a force responsible for arresting Hun Sen’s political opponents and violently suppressing anti-government protests. Last year, Human Rights Watch named him as one of 12 generals who form “the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime.” The Cambodian defense ministry called the report “fabricated.” Neth Savoeun is also a senior member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

That the country’s top cop has sought foreign citizenship could show that the party’s leaders are losing faith in each other, said Em Sovannara, an academic and political analyst in Phnom Penh. “It signals fragility in the ruling party,” he told Reuters.

Cambodia’s opposition has repeatedly alleged that Neth Savoeun and his family have foreign citizenship. In August, one opposition leader posted photos on Facebook of what he said were the family’s Cypriot passports. The post seemed to strike a nerve. The next day, the Cambodian National Police issued a statement, saying that Neth Savoeun would never “escape to another country, never betray the nation.”

In 2017, the U.S. State Department put Neth Savoeun, Hun Kimleng and their three children on a “visa blacklist” for undermining democracy, according to a U.S. official and another source. This means they can’t travel to the United States unless on official business. The State Department declined to comment.

Cyprus seems less strict. In the confidential document, the Cypriot interior minister urges the cabinet to grant citizenship to Neth Savoeun and two grown-up daughters, and notes that they have never visited Cyprus.

Under Cypriot law, the daughters are eligible for citizenship if they are “financially dependent” on the primary applicant, who in this case is their mother, Hun Kimleng. Yet one of the daughters named in the interior ministry document, Vichhuna Neth, 26, appears to be independently wealthy. In September 2017, three months before the interior ministry’s document was issued, she bought a London apartment near her mother’s, according to British property records. It has two floors and four bedrooms, and cost £5.5 million.

The Cyprus government didn’t respond to a Reuters request for comment about its decision to grant citizenship to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s relatives and allies, including a family blacklisted by the United States. Nor did it respond to questions about its vetting procedure for these prominent Cambodians.

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew RC Marshall, Reuters, 16 October 2019

Read more at Reuters

Photo: UNCTAD [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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