Categorized | Asia, Economics, World

A Lesson in Impunity

Tonle Sap Lake, Flikr



Hun Sen’s increasingly despotic grip on Cambodia, and his family’s oligopoly of the country’s economy, should invite stronger condemnation and countermeasures from the West.


In July of this year, the NGO Global Witness published an excoriating exposé of Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia. The thrust of their criticism was directed at the business empire which has been amassed by the Hun family across some of the country’s most lucrative sectors. Indeed, the stated estimate of US$200 million for the listed share capital of their business holdings is probably conservative. Connections to lucrative drug-smuggling operations and the practice of using shell companies to cloak some of their business interests make the true extent of their wealth hard to know. However, what is clear is that Hun Sen and his family have enriched themselves in flagrant contravention of his own anti-corruption laws, which require government officials to biennially declare their assets. Moreover, this is not a victimless crime. Firstly, their growing wealth is in stark contrast to the 40% of the population who live under or close to the global poverty line. Secondly, family members have been implicated in various unsavoury business practices, such as shoot outs and even introducing live cobras into people’s homes to force evictions.

So what has been the response to the report? One seemingly positive impact was the swift coverage of Global Witness’s work by international media outlets from The New York Times to Buzzfeed. If some of the more lurid details of the Hun family’s abuse of power mean that there is a commercial rationale for a broad tranche of the press to publish the story and raise their readership’s awareness of corruption in Cambodia, then that’s all the more to the good. For their part, The New York Times is correct to draw attention to the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The importance of this legislation is that it prohibits American firms from gaining an improper business advantage through dealing with foreign officials.

Companies such as Apple, and Procter and Gamble, which retail their products in Cambodia through affiliate companies dominated by the Huns, could fall foul of this act if their market position is found to correlate to the political status of the family members they deal with. In brief, selling your wares through an intermediary who has preferential ties to the regime is both anti-competitive and corrupt.

Another notable reaction to the report has been the publication and circulation of this photograph and others like it by Hun Sen and his relatives. It shows the Prime Minister in his office, surrounded by his sons and daughters, in a pose of informal celebration. Among those present are Hun Manet (far left), his eldest son and heir presumptive, and Hun Mana (front left, kneeling), his eldest daughter who has the largest number of business holdings of anyone in the family. The message is clear: “We don’t care about your report or your allegations, our position is secure”. More forebodingly, it evidences a cocksure and negligent elite, furthering their commercial dominance at the expense of Cambodia’s environment and uninterested in the social tensions plaguing the country.

In a region where extremist Buddhist and Islamic elements are often in conflict, Cambodia has a curious reputation for religious tolerance. Hun Sen himself is alleged to have directed killings of the Cham Muslim people during the Khmer Rouge years, yet his government have manufactured an Islamic support base by fostering links with religious leaders. Now, he seems to be using that support to leverage criticism of the political opposition, claiming that they would be anti-Islamic. This policy of divide and rule seems bitterly ironic given the Cham’s low participation in the country’s economic growth.

The case of Tonle Sap lake, the ‘beating heart’ of Cambodia which is slowly drying up is yet another indictment against Hun Sen. Deforestation and damming, to provide land for commercial farming and fuel for industry, are both probable causes of the ecological damage to the lake, and also activities that have been linked to the various businesses in the Hun corporate empire.

The case is quite clear; the economic dominance of Cambodia by the Hun family is destructive and corrupt. Unfortunately, outside the media, there has not been a significantly critical response in the West. The lack of comment from implicated firms, such as Apple, is deeply dispiriting. Global Witness provide a clear and reasonable framework for firms investing in and trading with Cambodia in the final pages of the report. The expectation for business activity with politically exposed persons to be stringently assessed is not unreasonable, it would help ensure compliance with the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for American businesses and the 2010 Bribery Act for their British counterpart.

If British and American companies cannot even take these basic steps, then the danger is twofold. Firstly, the Huns’ economic oligopoly will continue to be legitimated by foreign businesses. Secondly, anti-corruption measures in both the USA and the UK will be shown to be toothless. Cambodians deserve better.

(Global Witness’ report, “Hostile Takeover”, can be downloaded on their website)

About Arnot Birss

Arnot Birss is a third year English Literature student at the University of St Andrews, focusing on 20th century writing. He has contributed to several current affairs publications. His interests lie in the promotion of institutional transparency and the South East Asia region.

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