Drug Suspects Bankroll Cambodian Coup Leader

22 Jul

Drug Suspects Bankroll Cambodian Coup Leader; Narcotics Traffic Booms as Loans, Gifts Flow

Washington Post
July 22, 1997

By Nate Thayer

When a prominent businessman and senior adviser to Cambodian co-prime minister Hun Sen was implicated in an attempt to smuggle seven tons of marijuana out of the country recently, a top official in the government’s royalist faction vowed to seek his arrest.

“The court is preparing documents to arrest him now,” Ho Sok, the secretary of state for the interior, said of the businessman, Mong Rethy. Hun Sen responded with a blunt warning: Anyone trying to arrest Mong Rethy, who had contributed more than $45 million to Hun Sen’s development projects, should “wear a steel helmet,” he said.

The warning turned out to be prophetic. During a coup two weeks ago in which Hun Sen ousted his rival co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Ho Sok was hunted down by Hun Sen’s forces and killed with a bullet to the head.

According to Western anti-narcotics officials and Cambodian sources, Hun Sen has surrounded himself with suspected drug traffickers who bankroll his projects, lavish gifts on him and other leaders and seem bent on turning this country of 10 million people into an Asian narco-state.

In recent years, Cambodia has grown into a major transshipment center for Southeast Asian heroin, a significant exporter of home-grown marijuana and a haven for money laundering. At least 120 tons of Cambodian marijuana were seized in Europe last year, and hundreds of tons more are believed to have gotten through, anti-narcotics agents say.

Cambodia has become “the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world,” three U.S. senators complained in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last month. Calling the drug trade a “critical threat” to Cambodia’s government, people and future development, they said Phnom Penh “must take decisive action to halt the flow of narcotics through its borders and prosecute all government officials involved in narcotics trafficking.”

So far, however, the traffickers and corrupt officials have operated in Cambodia with near impunity.

Of particular concern to the United States lately have been the activities of Theng Bunma, Cambodia’s most powerful tycoon and president of its Chamber of Commerce. His Cambodian investments, which include a bank, hotel and import-export business, are estimated to be worth more than $400 million. He also owns a major holding company in neighboring Thailand, the Thai Boon Rong Group.

Bunma has showered Cambodia’s leaders with cash and gifts, including black Mercedes limousines, an airplane and helicopters used by Hun Sen and other top officials. And, according to a confidential U.S. government document, Washington believes Bunma is also involved in drug trafficking and has banned him from entering the United States. Bunma denies any such involvement.

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, he challenged accusers to produce evidence and arrest him. He also warned that he is a man of his word. “If I say I will shoot you, I’ll really shoot you!” the magazine quoted him as saying.

Mong Rethy also denies being a drug trafficker. “Many people have tried to harm me in this way before,” he said. “They have alleged I and Theng Bunma have provided {Hun Sen} funds to construct schools, temples, roads and bridges through smuggling of drugs. This is untrue.” He added, however, that he was sure he would not be arrested, because then “the school construction couldn’t be finished.”

In an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday, Ranariddh said Hun Sen gets “millions of dollars” from Bunma and Mong Rethy. “They are drug traffickers,” he asserted. “The Americans know well. Now the administration doesn’t seem to care.”

A close ally and financier of Hun Sen, whom he often accompanies on trips abroad, Bunma travels on a diplomatic passport and holds the title of economic adviser to Chea Sim, the acting head of state and chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In 1994,

Bunma gave $3 million in no-interest “loans” to the government to pay for military expenditures, according to Finance Ministry documents. He has funded the repair of Mao Zedong Boulevard, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, and has paid the salaries of much of the Cambodian armed forces since early 1997, diplomats and Cambodian officials say.

A 1995 U.S. State Department report on Cambodia said: “There are indications that some high-level military officials and powerful businessmen who give financial support to politicians are involved in heroin smuggling.” A U.S. official familiar with that report said it referred to Bunma. “We consider him a major trafficker,” said another senior U.S. anti-narcotics official, “We have followed him for a long time.”

But despite State Department warnings that drug-corrupted governments would have “difficult relations” with Washington, the U.S. government has appeared ambivalent about confronting Cambodian authorities on their relationship with drug syndicates. In February 1994, then-U.S. ambassador Charles Twining warned a Cambodian cabinet minister that Bunma was a drug trafficker and asked that the government distance itself from the tycoon, Cambodian officials said.

The same month, however, the U.S. Embassy issued Bunma a visa to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, an event organized at Congress and presided over by President Clinton. Mother Teresa was the keynote speaker. After hearing Clinton’s speech, Bunma was granted a meeting with U.S. officials at the Pentagon.

In May 1995, Bunma was again issued a U.S. visa as a member of Chea Sim’s delegation on an official visit to Washington. Bunma paid the large delegation’s bills at the posh Willard Hotel, according to hotel sources and Cambodian diplomats.

Since then, Bunma has been barred from returning to the United States, but he seems to have grown even more influential in Cambodia. On Jan. 7, 1996, at the dedication of a new “Hun Sen Park” that the tycoon financed in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen declared that he would “never abandon” Bunma, “who has helped our party.” On the VIP dais to observe the ceremony were both Bunma and the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires.

Var Huoth, Cambodia’s ambassador in Washington and an ally of Hun Sen, called Bunma “a big trader in Cambodia” but someone about whom “nobody knows” very much. He acknowledged rumors about Bunma’s involvement in drug-running, but declined to respond to the allegation. “We are the victim of trafficking from abroad,” he said.

In a report to Congress in March, the State Department praised Cambodia for “significant efforts in 1996 toward addressing its drug trafficking and transit problems.” The report certified the Cambodian government as “fully cooperating” on counter-narcotics efforts. But according to Interpol documents, the seizure by foreign law enforcement authorities of drugs originating in Cambodia increased in 1996 by more than 1,000 percent over 1995.

Foreign authorities are especially concerned about large shipments of heroin that cross from Laos and Thailand to Cambodia’s long seacoast. The traffickers “are using government planes, helicopters, military trucks, navy boats and soldiers to transport heroin,” said a U.S. official who tracks the Cambodian drug trade.

“There are definitely more drugs coming through Cambodia this year than before, but what can I do?” said Police Gen. Skadavy M. Ly Roun, who heads Cambodia’s national anti-drug force. He said serious enforcement is next to impossible because of political infighting, corruption and the involvement of powerful figures.

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