ASEAN watch shows Hun Sen’s fondness for luxury, ties to enigmatic tycoon

The Cambodian prime minister said the timepiece represents his country’s technological advancement.
By RFA Staff
2022.11.08
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ASEAN watch shows Hun Sen’s fondness for luxury, ties to enigmatic tycoon Luxury watches under the ASEAN brand to be presented to world leaders attending the summit this week.
Facebook: Hun Sen

UPDATED AT 9:48 A.M. EST ON 11/08/2022

Around two dozen VIPs at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh this week will receive a limited-edition, luxury watch that a website for collectors said was “worthy of a Swiss or German high end manufacture label.”

The swag has a purpose, according to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who as host of the event will present the dignitaries the watch this week. It showcases his country’s “scientific and technical progress” and its intention to become a player in the luxury timepiece market, he said in a Facebook post.

But the gifts have also highlighted Hun Sen’s own interest in fine goods, despite what on paper is a meager government salary, as well as his links to a prominent businessman who has emerged as one his closest advisers.

“Truly a symbol of Cambodia's chairmanship. People don't realized (sic) how these things are perceived by others, do they?” tweeted Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a Phnom Penh think tank that promotes democratic reforms in the country. 

He said in an email that recipients would likely look at the gift as a Cambodian effort to “buy favors.”

A growing conglomerate

The watch was produced by Prince Horology, which is part of the Prince Group, one of the fastest-growing companies in Cambodia that has a seemingly limitless amount of cash to spend. The business began in 2014 as a real estate developer but has since grown to include banking, gambling, tourism and food and beverage interests.

The Prince Group is run by Chen Zhi, who was born in China but naturalized as a Cambodian citizen in 2014. Chen is often seen by Hun Sen’s side during important events, including as part of a delegation that traveled with the prime minister to Havana in September to meet with Cuban government officials.

RFA reported last month that Chen was part of a shadowy investment group that purchased a $1.4 billion stake in a Cuban cigar company.

The prime minister,  who is also serving as the 2022 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, commissioned Prince Horology to produce 25 tourbillon watches for attendees of the ASEAN conference, including the leaders of nine of the 10 countries that make up the regional bloc. 

Watch aficionado

The word tourbillons, which was derived from the French word for “whirlwind,” refers to mechanisms invented by 19th century watchmakers to counter the effect of gravity on pocket watches’ accuracy.

Advancements since have rendered the instruments unnecessary, but their intricate workings remain sought after among aficionados — to include Hun Sen, whose own weakness for watches is well-known.

Since 2018, the prime minister has been the subject of seven posts by Insane Luxury, a Facebook page dedicated to the expensive watches worn by public figures. 

Each post chronicles a single watch spotted on the strongman’s wrist, collectively representing $13 million of retail-price value. Four of the watches were of the tourbillon variety.

Hun Sen’s detractors have pointed to the discrepancy between his $2,500-a-month salary and the high-end horologes on his wrist, a criticism that was repeated on the news last week that 25 timepieces would be offered to commemorate the summit. 

(Myanmar’s ruler, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was not invited due to the lack of progress in the war-torn country on a ASEAN-developed peace effort.)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen chairing a government meeting, Nov. 2, 2022. CREDIT: Facebook: Hun Sen

Concerns over corruption

Um Sam An, a former member of Parliament representing the Cambodia National Rescue Party, an opposition party dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court in 2017, said the money to produce the watches would have been better spent helping victims of recent flooding in the country.

Given Cambodia’s reputation for corruption, Um Sam An said few world leaders would likely wear the watch. Cambodia ranked close to the bottom, at 162 out of 198 countries, in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Political analyst Em Sovannara told RFA’s Khmer Service in an earlier interview that the leader should have opted for something that highlights Cambodia's cultural identity, such as the Apsara sculptures or other cultural emblems.

Sok Ey San, spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismissed criticism of the gift, noting that presents are a tradition at ASEAN summits. In 2019, for example, host nation Thailand presented visiting leaders and their spouses seven-inch silver garlands in bronze enamel boxes.

“We can give anything as a souvenir. We can switch types of souvenirs,” Sok Ey San said.

A growth opportunity

Hun Sen’s Facebook post announcing the gift received tens of thousands likes and was shared nearly 7,000 times on Facebook. Most commentators complimented what they saw as the excellent craftsmanship by Cambodian watchmakers, as well as Hun Sen’s leadership.

The watches also represent a new opportunity for economic growth in the country, according to Hun Sen. An estimated 2.8 million people live below the poverty line in Cambodia, where per capita GDP is about $1,500, well below what the ASEAN summit watch would likely fetch on the market. 

Prince Horology has developed a manufacturing workshop and a training center for would-be Cambodian watchmakers. Its first class graduated last week. The limited-edition ASEAN watches were all assembled by Cambodian technicians, Hun Sen said.

“We have branded the watches as ASEAN, but they are made in Cambodia so that they will know that Khmer can produce watches,” he said at a commencement ceremony last month, as reported by the Phnom Penh Post.

Hun Sen said Monday on Facebook that he planned to wear the watch at the ASEAN summit, at the G20 Summit in Indonesia on Nov. 15-16, and then during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Thailand on Nov. 17-18.

The handicraft has been reviewed favorably by watch-collector website Deployant, which in a review said the watches are “worthy of a Swiss or German high end manufacture label.”

The dial side is very simple, with a champagne gold dial with Dauphine hands, and dagger applique markers,” the website noted. “The watch features a sunken subsidiary seconds hand with the engraving of what looks like the Cambodian national flower Romduol.

The inner workings of the watch, and its whirling tourbillon mechanism, are visible through a clear backing, emblazoned with the words “Made in Cambodia” and “Prince Horology.”

UPDATED: Adds information on watch manufacturer

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