Cambodia crony cartoon - airport

Report / 20 Jul 2018

Who profits from the death of Cambodia’s democracy?

As Cambodians head to the polls, Global Witness exposes an elusive club of politically exposed tycoons set to profit from the country's sham election

ទាញយកអត្ថបទ "សេចក្តី​ប្រកាស​ព័ត៌មាន" ជាភាសាខ្មែរ 

As Cambodians prepare to cast their vote in a sham election on 29th July that will secure another term for the world's longest-serving prime minister, Global Witness shines a light on members of Cambodia’s business elite, who have profited hugely from the system of grand corruption instituted during Hun Sen’s reign, and would have a lot to lose from a change in government.

Published on Facebook in an effort to dodge a fierce government crackdown on free reporting, the campaign focusses on a small cabal of tycoons who have propped up the Hun hegemony with political donations and military funding, and by courting investors from overseas. 

This loyalty has been handsomely rewarded – the tycoons variously appear to have enjoyed immunity from the law, the rich spoils of the government’s state looting, and the use of state forces to guard their company operations and violently crack down on local protests against them.

As the US deliberates sanctions against Cambodian officials, Global Witness is calling for the inclusion of these individuals on any sanctions lists - for their role in the demise of Cambodian democracy, and the gross human rights abuses carried out on behalf of their companies. 

These tycoons include:

  • Senator Mong Reththy, who Global Witness has linked to a massive illegal logging racket and a sand dredging scandal worth millions of dollars. When allegations surfaced that the senator was also involved in marijuana trafficking, the prime minister said that anyone attempting to arrest him should “wear a steel helmet”.
  • Senator Ly Yong Phat, whose sugar company operations led to some of the most violent land grabbing Cambodia has seen this century, with thousands of people thrown off their land. Sugar is just one industry in his huge business portfolio, which spans casinos, the media, infrastructure and more.
  • Try Pheap, previously Hun Sen’s personal advisor, who Global Witness found to be at the helm of a multi-million dollar timber smuggling operation that relied on the complicity of officials from government, the military, police and customs. His company was even granted exclusive rights to buy illegal timber that was seized by the authorities, to sell on at a profit.
  • Senator Lao Meng Khin, who owns Shukaku, the company behind the infamous Boeung Kak lake evictions. Residents who took a stand have been beaten, arrested and jailed by the authorities. Another of his companies, Pheapimex, holds Cambodia’s biggest land concession, which is 33 times bigger than the legal limit introduced shortly after it was granted.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political career has been built on feeding the mouths of those who support him. As Global Witness investigations have revealed time and time again, his small cabal of cronies have pillaged state assets with devastating consequences. The richer and more powerful they have become, the greater their incentives to keep Hun Sen in power. Any international efforts to tackle the premier’s corrupt and dictatorial rein must also take aim at those who bankroll his regime.” - Emma Burnett, Global Witness campaigner


Cambodia’s descent into dictatorship

Hun Sen has been in power for 33 years, ruling with an iron fist that has seen opposition MPs, journalists and activists attacked, arrested and even killed.

As prime minister he has presided over a kleptocratic system of state looting that has involved the forced and violent eviction of Cambodians to free up land for tycoon-dominated industries like logging, mining and agribusiness. More than 830,000 people have been affected, deepening poverty in some of the country’s most deprived areas while making a small, corrupt elite vastly wealthy. 

Cambodia’s descent into dictatorship has spanned decades, but took a turn for the worst late last year. Fearing defeat in July’s election, the government jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha in September 2017, and dissolved his party months later. It then launched a major attack on freedom of speech, closing down most independent outlets and upping its efforts to trawl the internet in search of content to block and critics to arrest.

International intervention is critical

A Bill currently being debated in US Congress foresees targeted sanctions against senior officials from Cambodia’s government, military and security forces who have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia”.

Global Witness is pushing for the inclusion on this list of the tycoons who have played a key role in rigging Cambodian politics and its economy in their favour, to the point that the ruling party could seize complete control. The campaigns group is also calling on other foreign governments to follow suit and introduce similar legislation. 

For decades, Cambodians have been robbed of their land, robbed of their country’s natural wealth, and robbed of their voice. Now they are being robbed of their vote," said Emma Burnett. "This is a betrayal not just of Cambodians, but of all of the countries that have together contributed billions of aid dollars to helping Cambodians build a democratic system from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide – one that respects the rule of law and basic human rights. The corrupt elite who have taken that from them must finally be held to account.”

A PDF version of our allegations can be downloaded here

Find out more

Heather Iqbal, Senior Communications Advisor

[email protected]

+44 (0) 20 7492 5890