Prime Minister Hun Sen’s power over Cambodians’ daily lives extends far past his control of the nation’s government as he sits at the center of a web of relationships that control vast swaths of the country’s economy, according to a new investigation by Global Witness.
In “Hostile Takeover” the London-based nongovernmental agency details how Hun Sen’s family dominates the most important businesses in Cambodia where they can operate outside the law thanks to the protection of Asia’s longest-serving premier, his relatives, and associates who hold top military and government posts.
“The impact of the Hun family’s thumbprint on Cambodia’s economy is more than just wealth and privilege, it is resulting in hegemonic control that has formed a stranglehold over the democratic space and corrupted the country’s legal system, which remains firmly under the control of Hun Sen,” Global Witness writes. “As a result, companies linked to the Hun family appear not to have been troubled by anti-corruption laws preventing preferential allocation of lucrative public contracts and concession licenses.”
Hun Sen contends that he has no income outside of his $13,800-a-year salary as prime minister, but the Global Witness investigation found that the “prime minister’s immediate family have registered business holdings that link it to companies with a total listed share capital of more than $200 million.”
While Global Witness pegged the family’s wealth at $200 million, it said that the number is likely much higher as Cambodian disclosure laws are weak and Hun Sen’s family is adept at hiding its true holdings through shell companies, fronts, and associates.
“This is likely just the tip of the iceberg given the layers of fake nominees, shell companies or non-disclosure supposedly used by Cambodia’s political elite to obscure their commercial interests,” the organization reports.
According to the investigation, some of these commercial interests are linked to some of biggest abuses of power in Cambodia.
“Among the companies that the Hun family control or part-own are several that have been accused of egregious social and environmental crimes, for example Khun Sea Import Export which has been involved in land grabbing and forced evictions and the Garuda Group which, according to local media, has violently suppressed garment workers’ protests,” Global Witness wrote.
While the largest share of the businesses in the Hun Sen family portfolio are trading companies, Global Witness found that relatives or close friends also control significant parts of the Cambodian electrical generation, construction, real estate, tourism, aviation, rubber, mining, and consumer products businesses.
That vast economic power coupled with the family’s control of nearly every governmental institution means the businesses can operate free from fear that the authorities will crack down on illegal operations and guarantees the family a shot at any new enterprise, the organization said.
Near-total control of Cambodia
“This has created a closed circle of immense and ever-growing wealth, bound together by strategic inter-marriages,” Global Witness said. “However, this is not just about the accumulation of personal wealth or specific links between Hun family members and particular companies – the Hun family’s domination of Cambodia’s public and private sectors has resulted in Hun Sen having near-total control over the country.”
While the investigation focused on the Hun Sen family’s wealth inside Cambodia, Global Witness was also critical of the international community, noting that the family has “links to international brands such as Apple, Nokia, Visa, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Honda.”
“The Hun family are major gatekeepers to this influx of foreign capital into Cambodia, and have managed to establish business relationships with numerous big global brands,” the organization wrote. “These international companies are clearly either unaware of or unconcerned by their choice of business partners, whose family relationship to Hun Sen should raise red flags regarding the potential risk of corruption.”
The governments of other nations including the United States have also been complicit in allowing the Hun Sen family to accumulate vast wealth and power, Global Witness said.
“Cambodia has long posed a dilemma to the international community,” according to the report. “The U.S., for example, happily imports its cheap garments and invests in its economy - which markets itself on its lax approach to regulation - and it is also the country’s third biggest aid donor, but Hun Sen’s bleak human rights record has sat uncomfortably on Washington’s diplomatic conscience.”
Hun Sen’s repressive government may make policymakers outside the country uncomfortable, but his family and friends seem very comfortable inside Cambodia where the per capita income is about $3,000 a year.
While Global Witness didn’t detail assets like houses that the Hun Sen family owns, it did report that one of Hun Sen’s nephews, Hun To, drives one of only 375 McLaren P1 hypercars the British sports car company made and sold for just under $1 million when new.
“Corruption and the elite capture of state resources by the Hun family and their associates is keeping ordinary Cambodians trapped in poverty as money is siphoned away into personal bank accounts instead of being spent on vital public services such as health and education,” Global Witness concluded.
There was no immediate response from the Cambodian government to the report, which was released early on Thursday morning Phnom Penh time.