Thursday, October 17, 2019

Cambodia's Elite

A Reuters investigation into Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-ruling prime minister reveals family members and key police, business and political associates have overseas assets worth tens of millions of dollars, and have used their wealth to buy foreign citizenship. Among those who have acquired or applied for European Union 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. Hun Panhaboth, the son of a niece, defended his lifestyle in messages sent to Reuters through Facebook. 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.

Another Cambodian with overseas assets is the prime minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng. Photos posted on Instagram by a family nanny helped lead Reuters to a posh apartment in central London, situated only a few hundred metres from the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Hun Kimleng bought the apartment in 2010 for £1.95 million ($2.5 million), according to official property records. It could now be worth at least £3.5 million, estimates the real estate website Zoopla. She also owns a multi-million-dollar apartment in a luxury condo in Singapore, according to the Singapore Land Authority.
In 2016 , she became a citizen of a foreign country: Cyprus. His niece’s Cypriot citizenship is confirmed by a confidential document sent by Cyprus’s Ministry of Interior to its cabinet, which Reuters has seen. Getting a Cypriot passport also makes the niece a citizen of the European Union, which Cyprus joined in 2004. This gives her the right to live, work and travel without visas in 28 EU countries. Becoming a Cypriot isn’t cheap: It involves an investment of at least €2 million ($2.2 million). At least €500,000 must be invested permanently in property. The remainder can be invested in Cypriot companies, and need only be parked there temporarily. At no point in the application process is the applicant compelled to live in – or even visit – Cyprus. The Cypriot government denied this, but has also tweaked the programme. Since May, applicants must keep the bulk of their investment in Cyprus for five years instead of three. They must also pay up to €150,000 to state agencies tasked with fostering innovation and building affordable homes. Some critics dismiss these measures as cosmetic, and are calling for more public scrutiny of who is applying, where their money comes from and who benefits from it in Cyprus. The government has resisted.Between 2013 and 2018, the country granted citizenship to 3,200 foreigners under its Cyprus Investment Programme, raking in €6.6 billion.

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. In February, responding to Hun Sen's crackdown on unrest, the European Union 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 Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Neth Savoeun is Cambodia’s powerful national police chief, presiding over a force responsible for arresting Hun Sen’s political opponents and violently suppressing anti-government protests. Last year, Human Rights Watch named him as one of 12 generals who form “the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime.” The Cambodian defense ministry called the report “fabricated.” Neth Savoeun is also a senior member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. 

That the country’s top cop has sought foreign citizenship could show that the party’s leaders are losing faith in each other, said Em Sovannara, an academic and political analyst in Phnom Penh. “It signals fragility in the ruling party,” he told Reuters.
Cambodia’s opposition has repeatedly alleged that Neth Savoeun and his family have foreign citizenship. In August, one opposition leader posted photos on Facebook of what he said were the family’s Cypriot passports. The post seemed to strike a nerve. The next day, the Cambodian National Police issued a statement, saying that Neth Savoeun would never “escape to another country, never betray the nation.” In 2017, the U.S. State Department put Neth Savoeun, Hun Kimleng and their three children on a “visa blacklist” for undermining democracy, according to a U.S. official and another source. This means they can’t travel to the United States unless on official business. Cyprus seems less strict. In the confidential document, the Cypriot interior minister urges the cabinet to grant citizenship to Neth Savoeun and two grown-up daughters, and notes that they have never visited Cyprus.
Other members of Hun Sen’s inner circle have also received or applied for Cypriot passports. They include Cambodia’s finance minister, Aun Pornmoniroth, a long-time financial adviser to Hun Sen. Aun’s wife also applied. So did two of Hun Sen’s closest and wealthiest allies. Choeung Sopheap and her husband, Lau Ming Kan, created Pheapimex, a giant conglomerate. In a series of reports in the early 2000s, Global Witness, a London-based anti-corruption group, used aerial surveys and field inspections to document years of illegal logging by Pheapimex.
For some members of Cambodia’s elite, Cypriot passports are trappings of luxurious lifestyles. Wealth is a touchy subject in Cambodia. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 70% of people live on about $3 a day. Yet many relatives with the Hun family name flaunt their wealth on social media accounts. One photo on Instagram shows two of the prime minister’s nieces, Hun Kimleng and Hun Chantha, posing in ballgowns and matching golden necklaces. Other photos document their near-constant travel, often by private jet, to fashion shows in Paris, a hillside villa in Mykonos, and London nightclubs like Loulou’s. Hun Chantha also co-owns London apartments worth £5 million, property records show. Hun Panhaboth, the son of another niece, gave his girlfriend a Mercedes-Benz for her birthday. Instagram showed some relatives feasting on caviar in London. Among them was Hun Kimleng’s wealthy young daughter, Vichhuna Neth. She applied for Cypriot citizenship in November 2017. Four months later, she posted photos and videos on Instagram from western Cyprus. They show her driving a dune buggy along a coastal road and reclining in an open-air jacuzzi at a luxury villa.

Hun Kimleng | the prime minister’s niece. She owns multi-million-dollar properties in London and Singapore, and obtained Cypriot citizenship in 2016.
Neth Savoeun | Hun Kimleng’s husband and Cambodia’s national police chief. He sought Cypriot citizenship along with two of his daughters in 2017.
Vichhuna Neth | one of those daughters. She sought citizenship on the grounds she was “financially dependent” on her mother, despite having spent £5.5 million on a London apartment.
Choeung Sopheap | A powerful businesswoman and close friend of the prime minister’s wife. She invested at least €2 million in a Radisson Blu hotel in Cyprus in 2017 and got citizenship the same year.
Lau Ming Kan | Choeung Sopheap’s husband and a senator in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. He and five other family members also sought Cypriot citizenship in 2016 and 2017.
Aun Pornmoniroth | Hun Sen’s longtime financial adviser and current finance minister. He sought Cypriot citizenship in 2017.
Im Paulika | Aun Pornmoniroth’s wife. She invested €2 million in a Radisson Blu hotel in Cyprus in 2017 and obtained Cypriot citizenship the same year.
Hun Chantha | Another of the prime minister’s nieces. She co-owns London properties worth millions of dollars and takes private jets to posh European resorts.

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