Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak during a 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 15, 2016.
Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak during a 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 15, 2016.

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - An investigation by London-based Global Witness has uncovered an intricate network of Cambodian companies with a listed value of about $200 million, all tied to the family of the country's autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen.

“This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” the report, Hostile Takeover, said.

The report does not include the family's real estate assets, which are extensive, but quotes experts as saying the clan's total value could be between $500 million and $1 billion.  

It's an enormous sum, given Hun Sen insists he makes just $13,800 a year as prime minister and head of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Gap between rich and poor

About 40 percent of Cambodians live near or below the poverty line, another 40 percent of children are malnourished, and the wealth divide between rich and poor is emerging as a major social issue.

The oldest sons, Manet and Many, were mentioned in the report, along with the prime minister's wife, Bun Rany, who heads the Cambodian Red Cross — which Hostile Takeover says does little to hide its political allegiances and is often referred to as the “humanitarian wing” of the CPP.

FILE - Cambodian Red Cross, led by Prime Minister
FILE - The Cambodian Red Cross, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, has been criticized in the past for its close ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

But it was the eldest daughter, Mana, who emerged as the most successful of the clan. She is just one of two people whose companies have controlling interests in television, radio and newspaper outlets. The other is CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, a close ally of Hun Sen.

Hostile Takeover sheds light on a huge network of secret deal-making and corruption that has underpinned Hun Sen’s 30-year dictatorial reign of murder, torture and the imprisonment of his political opponents,” Global Witness said.

Company ties

The report found the Hun Sen family held interests in 114 companies that spanned nearly every facet of the Cambodian economy, including the mining, agriculture, electricity, media, garment, forestry and transport industries.

Of these, 103 companies counted a family member as chairperson; 44 companies included family members as a significant owner, with a minimum 5 percent stake; and 33 companies had a family member listed as the sole owner.

It said those companies held links to many international brands such as Apple, Visa, Procter & Gamble, Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren, and much of the data was garnered online from the government's own companies registry. Access, however, has since been restricted.

“That $200 million figure represents the listed asset value of the companies, and we believe that the true figure is likely to be much higher for a couple of reasons,” said Global Witness co-founder Patrick Alley. “One of which is the listed asset value, which is the value when the companies were created, is very likely higher than that — and also we can only talk about the companies which we have definitely found links to.

“And we believe that the family very likely own lots of companies which are hidden behind nominee directors — anonymously owned companies which we obviously can only stab at. We've heard over the years figures of $500 million and $4 billion, but we can't verify that.”

Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue
Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party raise joined hands for photographs at their party headquarters in Phnom Penh, May 27, 2016. A Cambodian court had convicted three military commandos of beating up two CNRP lawmakers outside the parliament in the previous year and had sentenced them to one year each in prison.

Crackdown on opposition

The report landed at a critical point in Cambodia, where supporters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) have faced arbitrary arrest and jail. Last year, two CNRP members of parliament were viciously bashed outside the National Assembly.

The CPP crackdown came as both parties begin gearing up for the campaign trail, with commune elections due this time next year and national elections a year later.

Hun Sen and his CPP were stunned by an electoral backlash in 2013, when the government was returned to power but with a sharply lower majority amid CNRP claims the government had rigged that poll while intimidating the electorate into voting its way.

Stephen Peel, former senior partner at private equity firm TPG Capital and a Global Witness board member, said too many company officials viewed corruption as a legal challenge and as an issue to get around as opposed to dealing with it from a moral and ethical standpoint.

“Companies should think hard and deeply before they get engaged in any sort of business relationship, be it investment or be it joint ventures, franchise agreements, distribution agreements, with these types of regimes,” he said.

Alleged ties to crime

Hostile Takeover also mentioned the prime minister's nephew, Hun To, who has denied allegations that he was involved with a heroin-smuggling and money-laundering ring targeting Australia.

“The Hun family includes members once implicated in a $1 billion heroin-smuggling operation, shootouts, a fatal hit-and-run, and land grabs that have caused mass displacements and destitution among Cambodia’s rural poor,” it said.

A government spokesman was unavailable for comment, and Global Witness said letters were sent to 25 members of the prime minister’s family asking for a response. One response was received, but Global Witness said it failed to address any of the allegations.

Global Witness said the the report should serve as a warning to investors who are urged to conduct stringent due diligence in Cambodia and report any evidence of corruption to international authorities. It has also called on the Hun family to make a full and public disclosure of its assets.