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Strongman Hun Sen Has Cambodia’s Economy ‘Sewn Up,’ Says Report

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

Hun Sen is only 63, but Cambodia’s Prime Minister is already one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. Since 1985, this former Khmer Rouge soldier — who defected and joined a Vietnamese-backed liberation force in the late 1970s — has clung to the top of his country’s politics, by hook or by crook. He technically lost the country’s U.N.-backed elections in 1993, but managed to engineer a situation in which the country had two Prime Ministers for a time. Hun Sen soon left his co-Prime Minister in his wake, and went on to lead the Cambodian People’s Party to four subsequent elections. The victories were not without allegations of vote rigging and intimidation, but Hun Sen has also relied on a system of patronage, blood ties and marital connections that align the country’s business elites, media, police force and the military behind him.

That system is the subject of unique piece of research published on Thursday by Global Witness, the London-based watchdog that calls out grand corruption, environmental abuses and state crimes around the world. In Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family, the group dives into government data on businesses registered in Cambodia, and unearths a “huge network of secret deal-making, corruption, and cronyism which is helping to secure the prime minister’s political fortress.” Altogether, the group claims, Hun Sen’s family have interests in at least 114 local companies with a combined share capital over $200 million (adding that the sum is likely a vast understatement of the family’s true wealth).

Global Witness alleges that Cambodians who help to prop up his rule are more likely to be granted government contracts, and receive impunity from prosecution — for either the infractions of their companies or their criminality as individuals. “In addition to the Hun family having complete control of the political apparatus of Cambodia, which they’ve had for a long time, they are exploiting [that control] to gain almost total economic control of Cambodia,” Global Witness co-founder Patrick Alley tells TIME.

The report’s real bite is in the details. Three of Hun Sen’s children jointly own a power company that sells electricity to the national grid. Two of the country’s biggest gas station chains are run by companies owned in whole or in part by members of the extended Hun family. Three popular TV stations, a radio station and one of the most-read Khmer-language newspapers are all run by Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, Hun Mana, who also has shares in the largest mobile phone network and owns a leading bottled-water firm.

A number of international brands have links to the Huns, according to Global Witness. The local distributors of Apple’s iPhone, Nokia products, Canon cameras and LG Electronics are all part of the family. Hun Sen’s niece operates the Australian franchise chain Gloria Jeans Coffees and the Hard Rock Cafe in Cambodia. The Prime Minister’s younger sister, meanwhile, holds major stakes in the companies that import Johnnie Walker whisky, Hennessy cognac, Durex condoms and Nescafe. These foreign companies are not accused of breaking any laws, but are asked to consider whether it is wise to have dealings with the family of a ruler who is dogged by allegations of human-rights abuses.

Seen together, it becomes clear that the reach of the family’s business mean that most Cambodians are buying from them, or using their services in some way, on a daily basis. “Amongst the cruelest ironies of the Hun Sen model of dictatorship is that many Cambodians (particularly the country’s growing middle class) will struggle to avoid lining their oppressors’ pockets multiple times a day,” the report says. This all goes some way to explain why Hun Sen, whose official salary is reportedly less than $14,000 a year, owns multiple palatial residences, and takes credit for making large personal donations to domestic causes.

Out of 27 Hun family members contacted by Global Witness, only one gave a substantial response. Sok Puthyvuth — a son-in-law of the Prime Minister who is also the son of Sok An, one of Hun Sen’s deputies and a major power broker — wrote to the group’s investigators that, rather than abusing his connections to build his business, “I take seriously the challenge of building a responsible and respected private sector group.” He adds: “I understand that I live in the shadows of my family.”

The allegation that Cambodia is a kleptocracy is not new. Sustained economic growth and impressive figures for poverty relief have given Hun Sen’s rule a sheen of respectability on the world stage, however. He recently got his first official invite to the U.S., and shook hands with President Obama during a summit for Southeast Asian leaders in Sunnylands, Calif., in February. Last month, Hun Sen struck a statesman-like pose at a World Economic Forum event in Malaysia, where, in a fine tailored suit, the Prime Minister expounded on regional economic integration.

“I would hope our report reminds people what we’re actually talking about here,” says Alley. “The fact is, Cambodia is a de facto dictatorship and it’s likely to be a dynastic one,” he adds. Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet — already a lieutenant general in Cambodia’s army — is rumored to be set to succeed Hun Sen, although the elder has pledged to stay in power until he’s at least 74.

Global Witness is calling for the Hun family to declare all its assets, and for Hun Sen to step aside from his controlling roles in Cambodia’s regulatory and investment bodies and its anticorruption unit — all of which means Hun Sen has the country’s economy “sewn up,” says Alley.

Despite the appearance of total control, however, Hun Sen’s grip has appeared to slip of late. The opposition, which formed a united front in 2013 to make big gains in national elections that year, is able to sidestep the ruling-party-dominated traditional media using Facebook. In response, more than 20 government critics, including opposition lawmakers, have been jailed in the past year, but Hun Sen’s winning streak could be coming to an end.

“Interestingly, young Cambodians have increasingly discussed and vocally criticized the unfair and unjust practices in the society such as prevailing corruption, nepotism and power abuses since the last national election 2013,” Ou Ritthy, a political blogger based in Phnom Penh, tells TIME. “The young become the hopeful agents of political change in Cambodia and the ruling party is likely to lose the upcoming national elections 2018 if the electoral management is free, fair and genuine.”

After the report’s publication Thursday, Hun Mana responded on Facebook, accusing Global Witness of “try[ing] to tarnish my Father reputation [sic]” ahead of the elections. “Anyhow, we thank you for your destructive efforts, which as a consequence will help my father in the coming election as they are all lies and deceitful to confuse the public about what my Father has accomplished,” she wrote, warning that local media organizations could be “liable” for publishing the report’s allegations.

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Write to Simon Lewis at simon_daniel.lewis@timeasia.com