US sanctions Cambodian navy chief for alleged graft

“Tea and Chau planned to share funds skimmed from the Ream Naval Base project,” the U.S. alleges.
By Jack Adamović Davies
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US sanctions Cambodian navy chief for alleged graft A file photo showing Tea Vinh (right), commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy, welcoming Yu Manjiang, commander officer of the Chinese fleet, in Phnom Penh Feb. 24, 2016, when the two countries were holding a joint naval exercise.

UPDATED: 1:25 pm EST on 2021-11-11

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Cambodian Navy Commander Tea Vinh and Defense Ministry Director-General Chau Phirun on Wednesday.

A press release announcing their designation under the Magnitsky Act accused the pair of conspiring to illegally profit from the refurbishment of Ream Naval Base, near Sihanoukville. Cambodian officials denied the allegations Thursday.

Ongoing construction work at the base has been a frequent subject of speculation since a 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal claimed a secret treaty had been signed granting the Chinese navy use of the base for 30 years. A spokesperson for the Cambodian government denounced the story as “fake news.”

Suspicions have remained however, thanks to admissions by officials that the project has the support of the Chinese government. It has become a sore point in U.S.-Cambodia relations, and the imposition of sanctions is likely to add to the tensions.

Wednesday’s press release accused Phirun of having, “conspired to profit from activities regarding the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities.”

“Additionally, Chau, Tea, and other Cambodian government officials likely conspired to inflate the cost of facilities at Ream Naval Base and personally benefit from the proceeds,” it continued. “Tea and Chau planned to share funds skimmed from the Ream Naval Base project.”

The press release offered no evidence to substantiate the allegations and the Treasury’s press office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the matter.

Cambodian ruling party spokesman Sok Ey San said the government would not be investigating the allegations.

“We can’t rely on hearsay and don’t want to waste our time and human resources,” he told RFA. “Without any documentation from the Treasury Department, we can assume that the allegations are groundless.” He did not say whether the government had requested documentary evidence from the U.S.

Phirun, who described himself being tasked to modernize Ream Naval Base, also said the allegations were false.

“I am working for the sake of Cambodians but the U.S is not happy [about Ream base issue] so they sanctioned me. I have not done anything wrong or colluded with China or committed corruption,” he told RFA in an interview.

Sailors stand guard at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, July 26, 2019. Credit: Reuters
Sailors stand guard at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, July 26, 2019. Credit: Reuters
This is not the first time corruption allegations have been leveled at Phirun, who heads up the Defense Ministry’s Material and Technical Services Department.

In March 2007, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered Phirun to return more than 200 hectares (495 acres) of land that he had allegedly stolen. He handed them to the government under threat of being fired.

Three years later, in January 2010, the prime minister once again named him during a speech at the Defense Ministry, identifying him as one of several corrupt generals.

In May of the same year, 22 teachers alleged that in 1991 Phirun had held them against their will. He only released them, they claimed, after the teachers thumb-printed contracts surrendering six hectares (15 acres) of land in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district to Phirun and the wife of Tea Vinh’s brother, Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Phirun was part of a delegation that travelled with Banh to China in 2019 to sign a mutual cooperation agreement to increase the scale of the Cambodian and Chinese militaries’ joint exercises.

Vinh has received his share of controversial press coverage, too. In 2007, he was named alongside his brother Banh in a report by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness. Customs officials told investigators that the brothers’ wives employed the services of Hak Mao, an officer with the Cambodian army’s Brigade 70, to transport illicit timber. Mao was arrested for allegedly obstructing a narcotics investigation at his home in 2012, although he was subsequently released without charge.

“Both these men have a history of involvement in illegal timber exports,” the 2007 report said of Banh and Vinh.

The brothers were the subject of an investigation by environmental news website Mongabay in October of this year, alleging that Vinh “is actively orchestrating a fire sale of land” throughout Koh Kong province, which neighbors Sihanouk province where Ream Naval Base is located.

In addition to his duties with the Defense Ministry, Phirun is the co-owner of Impex Royal (Cambodia) Co Ltd with Russian citizen Alexander Borisenko.

Cambodian Ministry of Commerce records show that the company was registered in 2010. However, a Cambodian company of the same name existed prior to that with Borisenko at its head, according to a 2003 report by Baltic news portal Delfi and a 2007 decision by the Moscow Arbitration Court. The Delfi report described how Impex Royal, under the supervision of Borisenko, allegedly imported a military helicopter to Sudan in violation of EU sanctions in force at the time.

In 2018, Phirun became a founding director of another Cambodian company, Rain Cam Rich Co Ltd. Among the eight other co-directors was a Chinese man named Wang Molin. Molin shares his name with an executive from the Chinese state-owned Jiangling Motors Corporation Group (JMCG). Along with Phirun, Molin presided over an official meeting between the JCMG and Phirun’s department at the Defense Ministry, according to a May 2018 post to the ministry’s Facebook page.

That a senior official in a procurement role seemingly entered into a private business arrangement with an executive of a company seemingly courting the official’s department raises questions of conflict of interest.

Tuesday’s designation will freeze any asserts Vinh and Phirun have in the U.S., and prohibit all American citizens and companies from doing business with them. The State Department also issued complementary travel bans prohibiting entry to the U.S. for Phirun, his sons Chau Phirith and Chau Puleak, Vinh, his daughter Tier Leakhena, his son Tea Sokha, and Vinh’s wife Kan Chantrea.


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