By Dimitra Stefanidou
“I think that within two years my assets will decrease, there won’t be a gain. And besides my salary I don’t have any other income. But I think my children will support me, they won’t let me starve.”
That was how Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen first replied when he asked by the anticorruption unit of Cambodia about his assets in 2011. He also claimed that he took home an annual salary of just US$13,800, and that it was his sole source of income.
On 7 July however, the anti-corruption activist group Global Witness published a report which revealed the colossal wealth of Hun Sen’s family, which could not have come from accumulating an annual salary of US$13,800 a year.
Family dominance in private sector and resources industry
Hun Sen’s family members are alleged to be major stakeholders in several large international corporations such as Procter and Gamble, Apple, Nokia, Visa, Unilever, Durex and Honda with a total capital of more than US$200m. Their total assets are about US$500 million and US$1 billion, according to experts, the report said.
They are also involved in the neuralgic sectors of Cambodia’s economy, such as in trade, finance, energy and tourism, and also in a considerable number of companies widely known for corruption incidents in fields such as gambling, construction, agriculture and mining.
Many of those companies, Global Witness said, have had “devastating impacts for Cambodian citizens and the environment, including land grabs that have caused mass displacements and destitution among Cambodia’s rural poor”.
The size of the corruption can be better understood by the following incident, included in the Global Witness report:
Among the most egregious examples is an agriculture company linked to the Hun family that is accused of using arson attacks and cobras to evict people from their homes. This has been filed as one of a huge dossier of cases at the International Criminal Court, as evidence that Cambodia’s ruling elite has committed land grabbing at such scale that it amounts to crimes against humanity.
The report was based on official information that investigators from Global Witness found in the Ministry of Commerce’s registry of companies. It is believed that the wealth owned by the Hun Sen family is even greater, if the shell companies and the companies registered by non-family members – but nevertheless holding assets of the Hun Sen family – are taken into consideration.
Involvement in the public sector
The Hun Sen family is dominant not only in the private sector, but in the public sector as well. He has family members who are actively involved in politics, the military, police, media, and charities, key role public sectors that boost the propaganda of Hun Sen’s political party.
The longest-ruling leader of modern Cambodia
Hun Sen has been the prime minister of Cambodia for about 30 years. He is the longest-ruling leader of modern Cambodia, who disregarded electoral results at times and remained in power. He is also notorious for the thuggish behaviour of his men towards his political opponents, including incidents of murders, torture and imprisonment on dubious grounds.
Hun Sen has managed to attract major investments in Cambodia coming from the UK and China and has inter-trading relationships with the US as well. Therefore the economic situation in Cambodia has significantly improved during Hun Sen’s dictatorship. However, more than 40% of the population is poor, living below or close to the poverty line as the wealth can be enjoyed only by an elite, who is involved in every sector of public and private economy. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world with population of more than15 million people.
As the report characteristically mentions, which illustrates vividly the current situation of Cambodia “One of the cruelest ironies of Hun Sen’s model of dictatorship is that his family has Cambodia’s economy so sewn up that Phnom Penh residents are likely to struggle to avoid lining the pockets of their oppressors multiple times a day”.
Pressing need to reform anti-corruption law
One can fairly ask: why does Hun Sen get away with all his unlawful and illegal actions?
The answer is profoundly deep-rooted. The legal system is also under the de facto control of Hun Sen. And he has managed, together with his family, to get away with crimes or offences that relate to anti-corruption laws.
For this reason, as the Global Witness report has proposed, there should be a reformation of the Anti-Corruption Law which will leave no room for Hun Sen and his family members to continue their exploits with impunity. They should, as the report also recommended, also be obliged to publicly declare their assets and business holdings in order to boost the culture of transparency and accountability in Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s family and governmental representatives claim that the findings of the report are not true, and are part of campaign by opponents to harm Hun Sen’s reputation, in view of upcoming elections. One of Hun Sen’s daughters Hun Mana wrote on Facebook:
We very much understand your intention toward my father and my family. And as expected every time when we are near election time, your organization always come out with something to try to tarnish my Father [sic] reputation.