Mon, Oct 21, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Relatives and allies of Cambodia’s leader amass their wealth overseas

Cambodia’s ruling elite portray themselves as patriots at home, while stashing assets overseas and buying European citizenship

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew Marshall  /  Reuters, NICOSIA and LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

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.

Yet, he could not 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 US and EU 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.”

An 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 US 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 EU 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 EU 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 reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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

Hun Sen’s government did not respond to questions 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 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 reporters 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 (US$2.5 million), according to official property records. It could now be worth at least £3.5 million, estimates the real estate Web site Zoopla. She also owns a multi-million-dollar apartment in a luxury condo in Singapore, according to the Singapore Land Authority.

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