Cambodia’s Hun Sen Challenged to Sell Luxury Watches to Help the Poor

Critics say the long-ruling strongman is trying to boost the political fortunes of his son, Hun Manet.
2021-05-14
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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Challenged to Sell Luxury Watches to Help the Poor Sam Rainsy's Casio watch is shown (left) next to images of the more luxurious watches of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany.
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Cambodian political opposition leader Sam Rainsy has launched a campaign to help Cambodians impoverished by government-ordered lockdowns amid rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in the country, raffling his Casio wristwatch valued at $5.00.

The move by the exiled party leader has sparked calls for Prime Minister Hun Sen to sell his own watches, valued at many millions of dollars more.

Sam Rainsy’s campaign will run for three weeks beginning May 16, with 10,000 tickets expected to be sold and proceedings broadcast live via Zoom.

“My watch is worth $5. If you think this is a good deal, please contribute that amount,” said acting Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid a string of convictions in Cambodian courts widely considered to be politically motivated.

“If people want to buy my watch, they can buy a $5 raffle ticket, and if they are lucky, they will be awarded with the watch. People can buy more than one ticket if they like,” he added.

Tickets can be purchased through CNRP branches overseas, said Men Vana, an overseas official for the CNRP, which now operates in exile after being dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in 2017 in advance of a national election the party was expected to win.

Ticket codes will then be sent to France for a drawing for the final award, Men Vana said.

Matt Vanny, a CNRP supporter living in South Korea, said he supports Sam Rainsy’s campaign, adding that the money raised will help many people now living in need. “It is important to join this campaign in order to help,” he said.

Sam Rainsy’s offer to sell his $5 watch has also prompted calls to Hun Sen to sell his own luxury watches costing millions of dollars more, Cambodian sources say.

“We have heard that Hun Sen’s watch is worth three or four million dollars, so if he sells it, this could help thousands of people,” Cambodian social analyst Seng Sary told RFA, while a young Cambodian named Seng Mengbunrong challenged Hun Sen to make the sale.

“The leader’s watch is worth a few million dollars. He has more than one of these along with other expensive accessories, but he won’t dare sell them. He would rather let the people cry,” he said.

Charges of corruption

Critics have long targeted Hun Sen, Cambodia’s ruler since 1985, and his family for their alleged corruption in a country where some hardly have enough food to eat. RFA reported in July last year that the prime minister had been drawing attention for his taste in watches costing more than a million U.S. dollars.

Hun Sen’s wife Bun Rany has also been criticized for her extravagant lifestyle after several photos of her wearing expensive clothing and accessories surfaced on social media. The photos show Bun Rany, who is president of the Cambodian Red Cross, wearing an expensive dress, a Versace T-shirt, a Hermes belt, and several luxurious watches.

Critics now also point to the family’s control of efforts to provide food and other aid to Cambodian citizens suffering under government-ordered COVID-19 lockdowns that have left thousands hungry in so-called “red zone” areas of Cambodian cities.

Some analysts see nepotism in the appointments of Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, to head a subcommittee in charge of security in quarantine areas, and Hun Manet's wife, Pich Chanmony, to lead volunteer doctors treating patients with coronavirus.

"It is like the Hun family is preparing a new political strategy, especially regarding the transfer of power from Hun Sen to his son, Hun Manet," said political analyst Kim Sok, who lives in exile in Finland. "This is a way to solidify Hun’s family and expand their assets during the COVID pandemic."

Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodia People's Party called the allegations "slanderous and untrue" and politically motivated.

Profiting from food aid

The Commerce Ministry on April 21 announced an online food store for residents in red zones, selling eight items. Several brands are closely linked to top ruling CPP officials, leading to claims of profiteering.

Items provided by the store include Vital bottled water, sold by a company owned by two daughters-in-law of Hun Sen, and Mi Chiet instant noodles—produced by a company owned by Choeung Sokuntheavy, daughter of tycoon and CPP senator's wife Choeung Sopheap.

Sokuntheavy is business partners with two of prime minister Hun Sen's daughters, and is related by marriage to his son, Hun Manet.

In addition, observers see that many companies or businesses of Hun’s family members are also wholesalers of food or groceries that do business with government by distributing or supplying foodstuffs to the people during the lockdown. These companies include Hun Mana's Vital Water Company. Soma Group (SOMA Group) under Hun Sen's son-in-law, Sok Puthivuth is in charge of distributing eggs, beef, rice, drinking water and electricity. Hun Sen's family members also have a pharmaceutical company.

In describing them as charity "sold below market value," Sok Eysan was not telling the whole truth in the case of at least one of the products offered through the Ministry of Commerce's shop, however. Mee Chiet noodles are offered through the online shop at a price of 16,000 riel ($4) for a case, the same price that the Mee Chiet company advertised on its website in January, months before the Ministry of Commerce shop was set up.

"When Hun Sen appoints his son to the steering committee and his son-in-law to the health technical committee like that, it becomes even more ineffective (in fighting COVID-19) because the officials in these committees do not dare to say anything against a wrong decision or mismanagement by Hun Sen or Hun Sen's son," said Kim Sok.

"When they speak out, it makes Hun Sen's family angry, so these committees are just a show," he added.

Cambodia ranked 162 out of 198 countries, close to the bottom, in Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.

An investigative series by RFA examining the overseas real estate holdings of Cambodia’s ruling elite has turned up properties worth $30 million.

In 2016 alone, at least $1.8 billion was laundered out of Cambodia, according to an analysis by U.S. think tank Global Financial Integrity.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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