Happy Chinese New Year in Cambodia
What a pathetic embarrassment the Cambodian government is, a B grade rip-off of the Lord of the Flies.
Happy Chinese New Year in Cambodia means hundreds of police, military police and Cambodian army soldiers gathering to receive cash envelopes outside the house of one of Cambodia’s biggest crime syndicate bosses tied to the murder, jailing, and beatings of poor Cambodians in the service of innumerable corrupt patronage contracts between Hun Sen’s ruling political party and selling off state assets and land concessions to China.
The house where the security services gathered in hordes to beg for corruption payoffs is owned by Cheung Sopeap, the wife of ruling Cambodian people’s party senior official Lao Meng Khun, who together own the Phiopemex company–a major financier of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany.
A corrupt elite who finance the Cambodian dictator, Hun Sen, and a small cabal of his corrupt cronies in power and their wives, have stripped the country of state assets, forests, oil and mineral rights, and forced thousands of villagers from their homes, in a rapacious orgy of selling the country to foreign investors—most notably China—in exchange for cash payoffs.
Phiopemex and similar front companies are given the protection and use of the army and security services to carry out what is essentially an organized criminal syndicate using the protections and benefits of a nation state–in exchange for cash to Hun Sen and a small group of former Khmer Rouge officials who have lined their pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years
More than 80% of the population lives in rural areas and 36% lives in extreme poverty, earning less than 50 US cents per day.
Pheapimex is one of Cambodia’s most powerful companies, led by a couple with extremely close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany. The company director, Lao Meng Khin, is a senator with the ruling Cambodia People’s Party. His wife, Choeung Sopheap (known as Yeay Phu) regularly appears publicly alongside the prime minister’s wife. Both Choeung Sopheap and Lao Meng Khin have previously accompanied Prime Minister Hun Sen on his diplomatic trips to China.
Pheopimex controls 7.4 per cent of Cambodia’s total land area through its logging and economic land concessions, having diversified since Hun Sen seized control in a bloody 1997 coup from a business portfolio to encompass concessions for pharmaceutical imports, hotel construction and special economic zones.
Since, Pheopimex has included hydropower dams and a notorious land grab in the middle of the capital Phnom Penh. The business empire has expanded to include mining across the country.
Pheopimex first came to prominence as a logging concessionaire in the 1990s in a forest industry dominated by illegal logging, murders, and land evictions, and enjoyed a long relationship with the Cambodian armed forces, using the military to provide security and exert control over its forest concessions.
Over the last few years, thousands of poor residents were thrown out of their homes in central Phnom Penh in a corrupt land deal which gave a valuable chunk of the city to Phiopemex.
In February 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh granted a 99-year lease to the private developer Shukaku Inc. over a 133-hectare area of prime real estate covering the lake and the nine surrounding villages, illegally stripping residents of their land rights, including Boeung Kak lake development and the surrounding land affecting 4,225 families.
On 26 October 2008, Shukaku Inc began filling the lake with sand causing flooding and the collapse of some houses. Water and electricity was cut. In September 2010, over 1500 affected families were forced to accept compensation for their homes and land well below the market value, with Shukaku Inc. offering a reimbursement of US$4000 for property despite property values assessed at over US$40,000.
The Boeung Kak settlement consisted of nine villages surrounding the iconic lake in central Phnom Penh and home to 4000 families.
By April 2012, 3500 families were coerced into accepting compensation for a fraction of the market value for their homes and land, driving many families into destitution.
The Boeung Kak evictions constitute the largest forced relocation of Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975.
Shukaku Inc is a front company for Peophemex and is owned by Lao Meng Khin and his wife, both close associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, and major financial backers of the Cambodian People’s Party. The Chinese firm Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co., Ltd. formed a joint venture company with Shukaku Inc to develop Boeung Kak into a high-end residential, commercial and tourism complex. The Cambodian Government granted permission to re-register the lease agreement in the name of the joint venture, called Shukaku Erdos Hongjun Property Development Co. Ltd.
Boeung Kak residents were denied title en masse, and residents denied the protection of a fair process for resettlement and compensation of people found to be residing on State land, in accordance with World Bank safeguards. The World Bank ruled on the side of the villagers, but the Cambodian government refused to cooperate with the Bank and turn, the World Bank informed the Cambodian government that it would stop providing loans to Cambodia and would not resume lending until there was a satisfactory resolution of the Boeung Kak case.
Cambodia cracked down harder on the displaced villagers. In May, 2012, female residents of Boeung Kak staged a peaceful demonstration and were surrounded by a mixed force of military police, anti-riot police and district guards, who used violence to break up the demonstration and then arrested 13 women, including a 72-year old. Their trial began two days later on May 24th, and just one hour after charges against them had been filed. Requests by lawyers for a trial delay to allow them to prepare their defense, review the case file and evidence, and bring in witnesses were all denied. They stood trial at 2pm – without a lawyer – after court prosecutors spent the morning interviewing them. They were charged with “cursing public authority” and “encroaching upon the land of a public figure” – Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin, the owner of Shukaku.
By 5:30 pm that afternoon, all 13 women had been sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. During the trial, the police arrested two more community representatives who were waiting outside the court prepared to testify as witnesses for the 13 women who were on trial.
In June 20th, 2012, the government reacted to local and international outrage by cracking down harder calling the 4000 villagers “prostitutes and terrorists”.
“Because there was an uncontrollable mixed renting by all kinds of people, this area turned to be an insecure place, shelter for criminals, gangsters, drug dealers, prostitutes and terrorists,” the Phnom Penh municipality said. Boeng Kak had, as a result, suffered from a “disappearance of national customs, traditions and Khmer culture.”
The extent of government corruption in Cambodia is so stark that revenue from illegal logging is several times that derived from legitimate enterprises. A USAID report titled “Cambodian Corruption Assessment” stated that “grand corruption involving illegal grants of logging concessions coexist with the nearly universal practice of small facilitation payments to speed or simply secure service delivery”.
“Forestry and mining concessions are signed behind closed doors … no one outside the system knows what proportion of earnings go to pay taxes, what proportion go to international businesses as excessive profits, and what proportion are transferred to foreign bank accounts.”
The tentacles of graft reach up to the highest levels, where officials maintain their position thanks to control of patronage systems that substitute for a system of government in Cambodia.
Cambodia could have earned enough revenues from its oil, gas and minerals to become independent of foreign development aid according to Global Witness, but high-level corruption, nepotism and patronage have siphoned the countries resources into the pockets of a few and left the country dependent on foreign aid and starving for access to health care, education, and basic rights.
The small number of powerbrokers surrounding the prime minister–members of the ruling elite or their family members– are the beneficiaries of these deals where millions of dollars are paid by Chinese oil and mining companies to secure access to these resources, never reaching state accounts.
“The same political elite that pillaged the country’s timber resources has now gained control of its mineral and petroleum wealth. Unless this is changed, there is a real risk that the opportunity to lift a whole generation out of poverty will be squandered,” said Gavin Hayman of Global Witness.
In 2012, the killing of journalists and environmental activists, thousands of forced evictions, the murder and beating and imprisonment of those protesting land grabs, allegedly including torture and in at least two cases murder, have dominated the mundane reality of Cambodian politics. A 15-year-old girl in Kratie province was shot dead as security forces tried to wrestle control of a plot of land away from local villagers to make way for a Russian rubber plantation that had been promised to a private firm in a land grant by the Cambodian government, and a well-known environmental activist was gunned down in April while investigating illegal logging and government corruption.
In a U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks in 2011, the US embassy Phnom Penh outlined the symbiotic relationship between the Hun Sen government and corrupt cronies. “These business leaders contribute money to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Hun Sen” and which these “symbiotic relationships illustrate the networks of business tycoons, political figures, and government officials that have formed in Cambodia, which reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen’s self-declared “war on corruption.”
The US embassy cable titled the owners of Pheapimex “Yeay Phu & Lao Meng Khin: “Power Couple” said the business owners were “One of the most politically and economically connected couples in the country (after Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife and Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and his wife)” and said they “are the co-owners of Pheapimex Fu Chan Co. Ltd, a controversial logging company that has expanded to cover salt iodization, iron ore extraction, bamboo cultivation, pharmaceutical imports and hotel construction….(and) now has access to at least 315,028 hectares of land for agribusiness.
The cable said “ Phu, who is of Chinese origin, uses her contacts in China to attract foreign investment from Chinese companies such as Wuzhishan LS and Jiangsu Taihu International. Her husband, Lao Meng Khin, is a Vice President of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, and he serves as a CPP senator and advisor to Hun Sen. Together, they have a joint venture with Sy Kong Triv through Wuzhishan LS for a pine tree plantation in Mondulkiri Province. This dynamic duo has a rather strong relationship to Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany. Lao Meng Khin has accompanied the Prime Minister on more than one trip to China, while Yeay Phu, who is a board member of the Cambodian Red Cross, is reportedly a close friend and business associate of Bun Rany. Yeay Phu is also a business associate of Tep Bopha Prasidh, the wife of the Minister of Commerce; and Ngyn Sun Sopheap, the wife of the Director of the National Department of Customs and Excise. The Pheapimex couple’s son is married to the daughter of Lim Chhiv Ho, the Managing Director of Attwood Import Export Co., Ltd. In addition to Khmer, Lao Meng Khin speaks Mandarin Chinese and Yeay Phu speaks several Chinese dialects.”