Archive | November, 1995

Cambodia: Asia’s New Narco-State? Medellin on the Mekong

23 Nov

 Cambodia: Asia’s New Narco-State? Medellin on the Mekong

Far Eastern Economic Review


(Three story package below)

23 Nov 1995

By Nate Thayer

Has Cambodia become a mafia state? Nate Thayer reports that in the two years since UN-run elections, criminal syndicates protected by high-ranking have turned the country into a major centre for heroin trafficking and money laundering. Doubly disturbing, some of the same military units accused of killing government opponents are implicated in drug smuggling and other crimes. Western aid donor countries are alarmed. Also: A profile of Theng Bunma, a businessman who has bestowed millions of dollars on the Cambodian regime.

(Authors note: The Review and I were sued by Theng Bunma for this story and I was forced to leave Cambodia for a short while because of serious threats to my life as a consequence of its publication. The U.S, government refused to go on the record that they had identified Bunma as an organized crime figure and drug trafficker, despite innumerable U.S. sources privately, in detail, saying he was. Thailand and Hong Kong, after publication of the below stories, both banned him from entry to their countries and issues criminal warrants for his arrest. Over drinks one night, in what will remain an unnamed remote Asian country, I was expressing frustration to a resident American diplomat at the U.S. refusal to acknowledge publicly Bunma’s status as banned from entry to the U.S. having been formally designated a drug trafficker. I was being sued by Bunma at the time causing considerable distraction. The diplomat responded: “Fuck that. Come to the embassy tomorrow morning. I’ll give you the documents.” I told him I wanted them to give to the Hong Kong court and he—the diplomat– would be technically committing treason by giving me the classified documents. “Fuck it. You are a U.S. citizen. It is my job to protect American citizens.” I carried with me at the time a copy of Bunma’s Cambodian diplomat and civilian passport as well as his Thai passport under an alias. The next morning, I arrived at the embassy and the very accommodating American diplomat took the passport numbers, punched them into a computer, and up came Bunma’s classified designation as banned from entry to the U.S. based on his designation under two U.S. Immigration criminal classifications: (1) drug trafficker, and (2) “Undesirable person”—which often refers to an organized crime figure. “Which documents would you like?” asked the diplomat. “All of them,” I answered. He pushed print and out spit a U.S. government document, on embassy letterhead, stating Bunma was banned from entry to the U.S. that would appear on any immigration computer on entry to the United States. I turned it over to my lawyers, who turned it over to the Hong Kong court, who turned it over to Bunma’s lawyers. They dropped the lawsuit. I then wrote a follow up story based on the document and the Review printed a graphic photocopy of the official U.S. government document to emphasize the point.  End of story)

(Main Story)

CAMBODIA: Medellin on the Mekong:


The UN spent $3 billion to lay the foundation for peace and democracy in Cambodia. Now the country’s fragile democratic institutions are being subverted by the wealth of drug lords. The REVIEW’s Phnom Penh correspondent, Nate Thayer, researched these stories over a four-month period in Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, France and the United States.

It wasn’t your typical diplomatic luncheon. In February 1994, U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining invited Cambodian Finance Minister Sam Rainsy and another senior official to dine at his residence in Phnom Penh. Leading them into the living room, Twining turned up the music and lowered his voice.

Then, according to Rainsy, Twining asked him to convey a message to Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh: “Please tell Ranariddh not to get involved with Theng Bunma because we Americans have evidence that Theng Bunma is involved in drug trafficking.” The other Cambodian official confirms the account.

The United States ambassador had just named Cambodia’s wealthiest businessman, but the allegation didn’t shock his listeners. Western governments, international law-enforcement officials and Cambodian sources say businessmen engaged in criminal activities have amassed immense power in Cambodia in the two-and-a-half years since United Nations-run elections. Protected by senior government officials, they’ve turned Cambodia into a major centre for drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling.

Although Theng Bunma denies any wrongdoing (see story on page 27), his company has been fined at least twice since 1993 for attempting to smuggle gold and other goods into Cambodia. Yet Bunma holds a Cambodian diplomatic passport issued in January that identifies him as special adviser to National Assembly President Chea Sim. He’s a benefactor of both prime ministers: He paid $1.8 million in August 1993 for Ranariddh’s Kingair-200 plane and gave Second Prime Minister Hun Sen the Mercedes limousine that ferries him to official functions. He even helped underwrite the 1994 state budget with interest-free loans of several million dollars–effectively funding the dry-season offensive against the Khmer Rouge, the REVIEW has learned.

Cambodia is a place where, one American official charges, criminal syndicates “are using government planes, helicopters, military trucks, navy boats, and soldiers to transport heroin.” Doubly disturbing, some of the same military units involved in drug trafficking have been implicated in political violence, pointing to dangerously close links between crime syndicates and political figures.

The allegations have far-reaching implications for Cambodia, which receives 44% of its $410 million annual budget in aid from Western donor countries. U.S. officials told the REVIEW that Cambodia will join 29 other countries on the Major Narcotics Country list in coming weeks, which could lead to a cut-off of aid.

France has already put Phnom Penh on notice that unless top officers it believes are involved in crime syndicates are removed from the national military police it will stop aiding the force. Australia, meanwhile, is worried by evidence that the navy–which it is assisting–is directly involved in shipping heroin.

The revelations could cause additional embarrassment to U.S. diplomats, whose government has officially made the fight against drug trafficking a top foreign-policy priority. In late April, Twining’s embassy issued a visa to Theng Bunma–the same businessman the ambassador had alleged to be a drug smuggler. Bunma visited the U.S. as part of a delegation headed by Chea Sim, who was acting head of state.

Asked whether he had informed Rainsy of U.S. suspicions about Theng Bunma, Twining said: “We don’t comment about confidential conversations with a host government.” But his employer, the U.S. State Department, has publicly voiced its worries about Cambodia. In a report on narcotics and Cambodia issued in March, it said “involvement of some leading businessmen with access to the highest levels of government is a known concern. We are not aware of any prosecutions for narcotics-related corruption. There are indications that some high-level military officials and powerful businessmen who give financial support to politicians are
involved in heroin smuggling.”

Cambodian sources, international law-enforcement officials and diplomats say numerous senior military and police officers are involved in transporting heroin through Cambodia or protecting the traffic. The drug, originating in the Burmese segment of the Golden Triangle, arrives by land from Thailand and Laos, or aboard small boats from Thailand. Then most of it is shipped out of Cambodia through ports in the southwestern province of Koh Kong, destined mainly for the U.S. About a third departs through Phnom Penh’s Pochentong airport, often destined for Europe.

“It is clear that Cambodia is a new and rapidly increasing trafficking route,” says Bengt Juhlin, deputy head of the UN International Drug Control Project regional office in Bangkok. He points to the absence of an effective legal system, lack of resources to combat drug smuggling, and official corruption. “The presence of the three makes Cambodia very vulnerable.”

An added attraction for international criminals is the ease of laundering money in Cambodia. A confidential report prepared this year for the Interior Ministry says that 19 of Phnom Penh’s 29 banks are suspected of being fronts for cleaning tainted cash. As the BCCI scandal showed a few years ago, crooked banks pose a special risk to the international financial system. But it doesn’t take a bank to launder–in Cambodia’s cash economy, it’s easy to unload dirty dollars at restaurants, nightclubs, luxury-goods dealerships and the casino.

“Cambodia is now a mafia state because there are a group of businessmen who consider themselves above the law, who have infiltrated all spheres, all aspects of government, the judiciary, the parliament,” says Rainsy, who was sacked from his government post in September 1994 and has just formed an opposition political party. “These people–these politicians–are at least protecting and at worst working for the mafia.”

It’s a sinister symbiosis. When the influence of crime bosses permeates the apparatus of state, then elements of the security forces can become their tools. Critics say that’s happening in Cambodia, compounding the climate of fear created by the government’s increasingly heavy-handed treatment of its political opponents. In fact, the two units most frequently cited in connection with political violence and other human-rights abuses–the Defence Ministry’s intelligence force and the national military police–are also deeply implicated in smuggling and other crimes, according to international law-enforcement officials and diplomats (see
story on page 30).

That means those who highlight the links between crime bosses and government officials are doubly at risk. In August, after Phnom Penh’s popular Morning News published reports about military complicity in heroin smuggling, a hand grenade was thrown in the house of the paper’s publisher.

A year earlier, the editor of The Voice of Khmer Youth was shot dead at midday at a busy Phnom Penh intersection. The attack came just days after the newspaper published a detailed biography of Theng Bunma, accusing him of heading a large criminal syndicate whose activities included drug trafficking.

“Cambodia is now like Noriega in Panama. Nobody dares to speak out because they will be killed,” says a senior officer in one of Cambodia’s security services.

Police Gen. Nouen Souer, the former head of the national police anti-drug unit, is one of the few Cambodian officials to have spoken out publicly about government corruption and the drug trade. After his remarks were published in an August newspaper interview, he received death threats. He has been silent since then.

In the August interview, though, Souer claimed that 600 kilograms of heroin a week were coming through Phnom Penh. “I knew about this, but I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “The smugglers are rich and have high-ranking officials behind them.” Asked who the high-ranking officials were, he replied: “I can’t tell you or I will die.”

Cambodian sources, international law-enforcement officials and diplomats name several wealthy and well-connected Cambodian businessmen as suspected heads of criminal syndicates. But none is better connected than Theng Bunma, a master at playing both sides of the fence.

In addition to bestowing gifts on the prime ministers, the magnate was linked to a failed July 1994 coup that attempted to shore up the power of some former communist officials who were being marginalized under the new regime. Cambodian and Thai officials say the 33 Thai nationals implicated in the coup plot arrived in Phnom Penh on air tickets booked by Bunma’s holding company, the Thai Boon Roong Group. The invoice remains unpaid, however, and Bunma contends the order was unauthorized.

Until this year, Bunma seemed to be content to operate from behind a veil of enforced silence. But on October 15, he was elected president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce by a vote of 21-1. That shocked Western donor countries, who were well aware of Bunma’s unsavory reputation. “This time they went too far,” one Western ambassador in Phnom Penh quoted his U.S. colleague, Twining, as saying.

Twining’s discomfort was understandable. His embassy had issued Bunma a visa so he could visit the U.S. in May as part of Chea Sim’s delegation. That was 15 months after Twining’s warning to Rainsy.

Twining and other U.S. officials refused to comment publicly on why suspected drug traffickers were issued visas, but one U.S. embassy source defends the decision: “We had no firm proof, only suspicions,” he says.

But other U.S. government sources close to the issue reject that defence. “The decision was mainly political. We did not want to force a confrontation with a government that we have good relations with,” says one official.

When several Thai MPs were put on the U.S. immigration “watch list” last year, barring them from entering the country because of suspected links to drug trafficking, the diplomatic and political fallout was heavy. Yet this time, the effort by diplomats to avoid controversy may have backfired.

To start with, letting suspected Cambodian drug traffickers into the U.S. appears to directly contradict post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, which calls for “public diplomacy” to expose foreign officials who participate in or protect international crimes such as drug trafficking.

“It is in the drug trade’s interest to remain behind the scenes working through corrupt government officials who can maintain a facade of probity and respectability. One of the best ways to routing out drug corruption is to expose it to public scrutiny,” says the U.S. Government Narcotics Control Strategy report released by the State Department in March. “Corruption is a threat to any nation’s security, for it allows criminal elements to undermine the legitimacy of the State from within.”

When Chea Sim came to the U.S., his delegation’s rooms at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington on May 8-10 were reserved and paid for in the name of Theng Bunma.

Chea Sim dined with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, had talks with National Security Council officials, and met Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, according to his official schedule prepared by the State Department. Teng Bunma didn’t accompany Chea Sim on his official rounds in Washington, but Rohrabacher was incensed when he learned afterwards that U.S. officials suspected a member of the Cambodian delegation of involvement in the drug trade.

“If Chea Sim was accompanied to the United States by major drug dealers, I would be very upset. Not only upset with the drug dealers, but upset with my own government for not tipping me off,” says the congressman, who met Chea Sim on May 10. “The Cold War is over. We have no more excuse to turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior by governments.”

President Bill Clinton seems to agree. In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the UN, he announced that the U.S. was identifying and putting on notice countries that tolerate laundering of drug money, and threatened economic sanctions against governments that failed to crack down.

“President Clinton’s speech . . . represents a significant new conception of U.S. foreign policy,” Zoe Baird, a member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, wrote on October 25. “The U.S. may stop supporting a leader who is tolerant of a drug cartel though it
previously supported him because he was a staunch anti-communist. The U.S. may risk embarrassing or destabilizing a government that is weak in rooting out–or protects–terrorists or organized crime.”

The Cambodian government protests that it is doing what it can to fight crime. On September 15, it set up a special committee chaired by the prime ministers to combat drug-related crimes. Already, it says it’s “closely cooperating with international organizations–such as the UN and  Interpol and with countries such as the U.S. and France–in implementing measure aimed at ferreting out and apprehending criminals, seizing drugs and sending them to the court.”

But unless concrete results are visible soon, it may be too late to protect U.S. aid to Cambodia. American officials say it’s only a matter of weeks before Cambodia is placed on the Major Narcotics Country list. Once that happens, U.S. law will require that Phnom Penh demonstrate that it has “taken legal and law-enforcement measures to prevent and punish public corruption–especially by senior government officials–that facilitates the production, processing or shipment of narcotic drugs, or that discourages investigation or prosecution of such acts.”

If Cambodia cannot satisfy these terms, the U.S. is obliged to consider halting most forms of bilateral assistance, and voting against multilateral assistance programmes such as those of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank–the financial lifeblood of the Cambodian government.

In several cases, countries that failed to meet the criteria were issued U.S. “national-interest waivers” by the White House, sparing them from the full force of sanctions. But Cambodia, which lacks the strategic importance of a country like Pakistan, could conceivably end up on a short list of the countries that have been “decertified” by the U.S: Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Syria and Nigeria. That would give it virtual outlaw status.

“You don’t want to be on that list,” says one U.S. official. “Its significance is the loss of assistance, but it’s also political. It’s like being on the terrorist list.”

 (Story two)

Sugar Daddy

Businessman emerges as pillar of the regime


His name is a household word to Cambodians, from noodle vendors to civil servants. It is synonymous with wealth and power on the streets of Phnom Penh. “In Khmer, we say ‘He makes the rain, he makes the thunder’,” says a senior Cambodian official. “Everybody knows that Theng Bun Ma can do what he wants.”

Theng Bun Ma, a 54-year-old ethnic Chinese, is Cambodia’s richest businessman. But his aura of power doesn’t come from his October 15 election as president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce—it comes from his close connection to the country’s political and military elite.

With interests ranging from cigarette distributorship to a casino, Bunma’s company, the Thai Boon Roong Group, is Cambodia’s biggest taxpayer. But he has also showered the leadership with gifts and even helped underwrite the military budget.

Clearly, Bunma has come a long way from the eastern province of Kampong Cham, where he started out as a driver’s assistant on a rural bus line and moved into small trading. “I was young, then I traded rice and ran buses,” he said in a rare interview with a Phnom Penh journalist, “I had contact with Thai’s selling beans, sugar, cement.”

That wasn’t all he traded, according to a detailed biography published in a Phnom Penh newspaper in August 1994. The Voice of Khmer Youth alleges that in 1972, Bunma was arrested in the western city of Battambang, when he tried to smuggle 20 kilos of opium in from Thailand under the hood of his car.

Sentenced to twenty years in prison, Bunma bribed a guard and escaped, it charged. “Using a bamboo stalk as a ladder, he crawled out a prison window (and)…hid in a rice loft. The court issued an arrest warrant for Bunma. From this point on, Bunma took refuge at the Khmer-Thai border,” the newspaper said.

Less than a week after the newspaper printed the biography, its editor was gunned down by men in military uniform in broad daylight on a busy Phnom Penh street. No one has been arrested for the murder.

Bunma said he moved to Thailand in 1972 simply because Khmer Rouge guerrillas were disrupting trade. Whatever the reason for the move, Bunma received a Thai citizenship card on July 8, 1975. The next month he registered Thai Boon Roong as an import-export company with capital of $100,000. “I did business through waterways using ships to transport goods to sell in Vietnam,” Bunma said in the interview.

It was a tumultuous time to be trading with Vietnam, where the south had just fallen to the communists. The Voice of Khmer Youth report said that Bunma used boats to smuggle everything from palm oil to tobacco into the country, returning with Vietnamese girls and well-off Sino-Vietnamese refugees.

Smuggling made Bunma a rich man, the newspaper said. That charge incenses the tycoon, who prepared for the October interview by having an aide tape a patch of traditional Chinese medicine to his chest. “You’ll be asking questions so I am putting this patch on for fear that my energy is not strong enough,” he said. “My heart is not strong.”

Then he lashed out at public accusation that “I am mafia, that I deal in drugs.” Bunma said he made his fortune during the Thai property boon of the 1980’s. “Can the people who do dirty business be equal to me? I sold a piece of land on Sukhumvit (in Bangkok), which I’d bought for $400 million, and I sold it for than $800 million. I bought another piece of land, also in Thailand, for $100 million and I sold it for $470 million. Do people dealing in drugs make that much money?”

Bunma didn’t explain, however, where the initial capital came from. Nor did Thai Boon Roong’s move into real-estate mean an end to smuggling: Cambodian customs officers have fined the company at least twice in recent years for illegally importing goods: One incident in 1993 involved 104 kilograms of gold.

Bunma, who is managing director of the Thai Boon Roong group, said it was a desire to “reconstruct the Khmer nation” that made him one of the first major investors in Cambodia after the country started opening up in 1992. Actually, Bunma was already trading with Cambodia on a massive scale by the late 1980’s, and he helped the army meet its payroll when Soviet and Vietnamese aid ended.

In the early 1990’s, he snapped up hundreds of hectares of property in Phnom Penh and the deep-water port of Sihanoukville. When the government began privatizing its assets, He became a major contributor to the formerly communist ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, in the run-up to the 1993 UN-run elections.

Bunma now has major stakes in a wide range of legitimate businesses in Cambodia, including the Mekong bank, the Holiday International casino, the Regency Park hotel-office complex, a daily newspaper and a plywood factory. Thai Boon Roong is partnered with Intercontinental Hotels in building Phnom Penh” first five-star hotel. It also has exclusive distribution rights for Jet brand Indonesian cigarettes in Indochina; business associates say the monopoly nets at least $4 million a month on sales of 100,000 cases.

In the interview, Bunma also talked about owning three Boeing 737 aircraft and “49 pieces of land in Thailand, but I have not had time to construct.”

Bunma’s business skills have earned him his share of admirers. Says one Overseas Chinese Businessman in Phnom Penh: “he keeps his word. There is not a lot of paperwork in the traditional Chinese way of doing business, and he always pays his bills.”

Says another associate: “He is a very shy person, quiet, dignified. There is a physical presence, but he doesn’t swagger. For what it is worth, he is a very doting grandfather.”

One Asian intelligence agency, which has an extensive file on Bunma, mentions that he suffers from diabetes. He speaks Khmer, Thai, and Chinese, but no European languages.

“He is very demanding—he only eats dishes prepared by his wife,” said the newspaper biography. He has been married twice and has ten children—eight sons and two daughters. One son is the director of the Mekong bank; the other runs Sharaton Hotel in Phnom Penh, which houses the casino.

The casino business is perhaps most emblematic of the man, who used to spend his free time gambling on card games even as a small-time trader in sleepy Battambang. Now, according to an Asian intelligence official, “every time he gambles it’s not less than $1 million.”

(Story three)

The Storm Troopers

Abuses prompt donor countries to reconsider aid

It wasn’t exactly a clean getaway. When confronted by Phnom Penh’s anti-drug squad early this year, a gang of suspected heroin traffickers opened fire on police and to sanctuary inside a compound belonging to military intelligence on the western edge of the capital.

Was that a sign that the Cambodian Defence Ministry’s feared intelligence force was abandoning its security role for more lucrative pursuits? No, apparently it was just diversifying: On July 13, dissident politician Sam Rainsy’s bodyguards were dragged to the same compound, where they were beaten and threatened.

Diplomats, international law-enforcement officials and human-rights advocates who monitor Cambodia say a disturbing pattern has emerged: The same military and police units responsible for violence against opponents of the government are also the most deeply implicated in criminal activities. These include military intelligence and the national military police, or gendarmerie.

The way crime permeates the apparatus of state is problematic for Western aid donors. It is particularly awkward for France, which is aiding the military police. French officials say they notified the Phnom Penh government in October that unless the commander of the military police—Gen. Kien Savuth—is purged, France will halt its multimillion- dollar programme to train and equipt the force.

Formed during the 1979-1989 Vietnamese occupation and still essentially controlled by the same men, military intelligence and the military police both adapted quickly to life after communism after the signing of the 1991 Cambodian peace agreement. “From the very beginning, these people, in addition to arresting, held people for ransom,” says a former top official of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), which organized the 1993 elections. “They have been involved in both extortion arrests and political arrests.”

Untac documents implicate the current head of military intelligence, Maj-Gen. Chhum Socheat, in a number of incidents of political intimidation and violence during the run-up to the 1993 election, including the abduction and execution of four opposition-party activists in Battambang, in western Cambodia.

Military intelligence troops have been enforcing a reign of terror in western Cambodia since at least 1991, according to a 1994 report from the UN Centre for Human Rights. The confidential UN report said intelligence units were “making use of wide and uncontrolled powers they enjoy in the province to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture, and execute to carry out, concurrently to their military intelligence work, more lucrative activities.”

Socheat was responsible for the 5th military region, which covers western Cambodia, at the time.

One UN official assigned to investigate a murder committed by senior military intelligence officers, vented his frustration with their impunity in a March 13, 1993 memo to his superiors: “Is someone going to escape going to trial for cold-blooded murder merely because he is a high-level military figure?” he said. “If so, this Human Rights Officer would prefer someone else tell the sister of the victim.”

The record of the military police, which answers directly to the two prime Ministers, isn’t much better. From 1985 through 1993, Gen. Kien Savuth’s 820-man unit was responsible for Phnom Penh’s security. It was called in by the Prime Minister to put down anti-corruption demonstrations in December 1991. According to the former top Untac official, the unit was directly “implicated in the killings of unarmed demonstrators during the unrest” and “was responsible for numerous cases of ill-treatment of peasants” during other operations.

“because of its record, recommendations were made during the Untac period that it be made among the first units to be demobilized because its very existence was antithetical to the creation of a neutral political environment,” the former official says.

Instead, the unit survived the Untac period and was transformed into a military police force after the election. In October, the gendarmes were used to break up an opposition-party meeting that had been banned by Hun Sen. Earlier, grenades were thrown and more than 30 opposition officials and supporters were hurt.

The nationwide networks of military intelligence and military police give them the means to traffic contraband, Nguon Pen, deputy governor of Stung Treng province, charged in September that planes controlled by the military were flying heroin from the province, which borders Laos, to Phnom Penh. “Who can fight them if some of the crimes are committed by those in the army themselves,” he said.

Military intelligence’s Gen. Socheat and the gendarmerie’s Gen. Savuth have something else in common: links to powerful businessmen. Uniformed and plainclothes gendarmes guard Theng Bunma’s residence in Phnom Penh, and also handle security at the Holiday International casino, which Bunma controls.

In February 1994, gendarmes forcibly evicted hundreds of families from a property owned by Bunma near Phnom Penh and slated for development. Gen. Savuth personally directed the operation, during which scores of villagers were beaten, one child shot to death, and one man taken into custody and executed, according to foreign human-rights investigators.

A record like that has made France balk. “We have officially told the Cambodian government already that if Gen. Kien Savuth is not dismissed, removed as head of the military police, we will not support them anymore. We will be forced to halt our gendarme programme,” a senior French official in Phnom Penh told the REVIEW. “We know very well the truth about this man. We cannot continue to support him.”

Australia, another key donor country in Cambodia, is faced with a similar dilemma. Much of Australia’s military assistance programme is focused on helping Cambodia rebuild its navy. But law enforcement officials say some elements at the navy are deeply involved in criminal syndicates, using naval vessels to transport or protect shipments of heroin and marijuana. “We are very disturbed by some of what we know,” says an Australian official in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia’s main drug export route is the southwestern coastal province of Koh Kong, where former navy chief Adm. Tea Vinh, the younger brother of Defence Minister Tea Banh, wields immense influence. A foreign narcotics official says that since 1991 “our intelligence began picking up four to six shipments a year” of high-grade refined heroin through Koh Kong, with each shipment weighing at least 300 kilograms. That is probably just the tip of the iceberg, he adds. “The only thing hampering them is the weather.”

Not that there isn’t the occasional raid. A combined force of police and customs officials swooped down on a speedboat off Koh Kong on August 11, seizing 71 kilograms of heroin. But two of the arrested smugglers were cops, who quickly fingered their superior officer. “The province of Koh Kong is completely under the control of the mafia,” charges a senior Cambodian government official. “Virtually the entire political structure is involved in illegal activities.’

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