Tycoon Says He Financed Hun Sen Coup

24 Jul

Tycoon Says He Financed Hun Sen

Coup; $1 Million Underwrote

Cambodian Takeover

The Washington Post
July 24, 1997
By Nate Thayer

A powerful Cambodian businessman and suspected drug kingpin says he gave more than $1 million in cash and gold to co-prime minister Hun Sen and his allies to fund a coup that ousted rival government leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh this month.

Theng Bunma, reputedly Cambodia’s wealthiest man and a staunch supporter of Hun Sen, told Western journalists in an interview in Phnom Penh last week that he had called Hun Sen during the July 5-6 coup to offer his support. Among those present at the interview was an Australian television news crew, which made a tape available to The Washington Post.

“I gave him {Hun Sen} $1 million to do whatever to control the situation,” Bunma told the reporters. “He asked me if I had the money in Cambodia. I said no, but I would send 100 kilograms {220 pounds} of gold in a plane into Cambodia.” That amount of gold is worth about $860,000.

Bunma, who is president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce and owns holdings worth an estimated $400 million in Cambodia, also said he paid three renegade members of Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party $50,000 each to support Hun Sen’s coup.

The tycoon made it clear that he saw the takeover as good for his business interests, but he did not explain why he was revealing a role in bankrolling it. The U.S. government believes that Bunma, in addition to owning a hotel, a bank and an import-export company in Cambodia, is the country’s biggest heroin trafficker.

In the interview, Bunma reiterated his previous denials of involvement in drug trafficking. “I was accused of being a drug trafficker, and I am telling you, drug trafficking, I really hate that,” he said. “I have never done it.”

In a briefing in Washington Tuesday, however, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, “We have reliable reporting that he {Theng Bunma} is closely and heavily involved in drug trafficking in Cambodia.”

He said the United States “does not have evidence that links Hun Sen himself, personally, to these accusations of narcotics trafficking” but that “we think the Cambodian government can do a lot more to purge itself of obvious corruption in the government, of obvious linkages between . . . members of the government and narco-traffickers.”

In an interview with The Washington Post in Bangkok Saturday, Ranariddh charged that Bunma and another wealthy suspected drug trafficker, Mong Rethy, have long been bankrolling Hun Sen. “He gets money from them, and they are drug traffickers,” Ranariddh said. “I ask now that President Clinton . . . make public the investigation of the {Drug Enforcement Administration} on drug trafficking in Cambodia,” Ranariddh added. “The DEA knows clearly.” “The mafia is now in charge in Cambodia,” Ranariddh declared, saying he was referring to “people like Theng Bunma, who is very, very powerful.”

During the coup, more than 300 of Hun Sen’s troops, backed by tanks, were dispatched to protect Bunma’s property. In the interview last week, Bunma expressed appreciation for that action and support for Ranariddh’s ouster. “I say what {Hun Sen} did was correct,” Bunma said. “Why? One reason. Take the example of my hotel.” Ranariddh’s troops wanted to destroy it, he said, but Hun Sen “put three tanks and soldiers around to protect it.”

Bunma said that he gave $50,000 each to three Funcinpec politicians opposed to Ranariddh — provincial governors Toan Chhay and Duong Khem and minister of state Ung Phan — to “encourage them” and cement their support for Hun Sen’s coup.

According to Western military sources in Phnom Penh, Bunma also has provided Hun Sen in recent days with Russian-made Mi-26 transport helicopters to ferry troops to front-line positions in northwestern Cambodia to battle Funcinpec loyalists. The helicopters are owned by Bunma and piloted by hired Russian crews. Intelligence sources say the helicopters also have been used to carry Southeast Asian heroin to Cambodian ports as part of international smuggling operations.

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