Blog / Aug. 31, 2016
“We don’t care, we’re still in power.”
When we launched our latest data-driven investigation nearly two months ago, none of us expected events to unfold as they did.
Our report, Hostile Takeover, was the result of a major investigation into the corruption that underpins Cambodia’s economy. It provided the evidence for what most Cambodians suspected but could never prove – that family members of Prime Minister Hun Sen are amassing vast personal fortunes in the country’s private sector.
Cambodia is a dictatorship, and is likely to become a dynastic one. In power for 30 years, Hun Sen has overseen the murder, torture and jailing of his critics. His family members hold key posts in politics, the military, police, media, and charities, and his eldest son Hun Manet is being groomed to succeed him
Our report showed how members of the Hun family wield significant control across most of Cambodia’s lucrative industries, with links to major global brands. Some of the domestic companies they are affiliated to have been accused of a litany of abuses, including land grabbing, and violence and intimidation against local populations.
The news dominated the headlines in Cambodia for days, and received widespread international coverage, ranging from the New York Times to Buzzfeed.
The Hun family response was characteristically cynical. Within hours, three of the premier’s children had already taken to Facebook, accusing Global Witness of politically-motivated lies.
Among them was Hun Sen’s eldest daughter Hun Mana. Our investigations revealed how Mana has the largest number of business holdings of any member of the family, with links to or interests in 22 companies which have registered share capital of more than US $66 million, according to filings in Cambodia.
“Thank you Global Witness for taking your time and many resources to research about our HUN Family. We very much understand your intention toward my Father and my Family. And as expected every time when we are near election time, your organization always come out with something to try to tarnish my Father reputation. 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.”
Hun Sen swiftly followed suit, posting a set of photos of himself and his children all raising a glass in his office – a message interpreted by many to mean, “We don’t care, we’re still in power.”
On one level these Facebook responses seem relatively innocuous. But they come at a time when the prime minister has civil servants from seven government ministries trawling the internet, especially Facebook, for comments deemed critical of government policy - a project which has resulted in arrests, imprisonment and lawsuits.
Hun Sen’s rule is becoming increasingly despotic. He narrowly won Cambodia’s last general election in 2013 among allegations of electoral fraud. A number of laws have since been passed giving the government increased powers to monitor and crack down on its critics, even the opposition party. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been in exile in France since a warrant for his arrest was issued last year. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll return in time for the 2018 general election.
The media is a major artery of the Hun regime. Hun Mana, for example, owns outlets which broadcast across radio, TV and newspapers and are some of the leading mouthpieces of her father’s Cambodian People’s Party. On Facebook she expressed her hope that independent Cambodian newspapers the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily would be held “liable” for covering the report findings. While much of the country’s media was either under government control or too nervous to appear to be criticising the Hun family, both the Post and the Daily had reported on our findings in full.
Later in the day, the pro-government Fresh News website published an anonymous letter and accompanying cartoon which highlighted the culture of intimidation and fear surrounding freedom of expression in Cambodia. The cartoon was a doctored version of Nazi propaganda from 1943 showing Roosevelt and Churchill helping Stalin to execute a woman who symbolised peace on a ‘Jewish chopping block’. In this version, the war-time leaders were replaced with logos of Global Witness, the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily, with the Star of David substituted for the Cambodian flag. The accompanying letter threatened to kick both media outlets out of Cambodia.
We had expected our report to be met with denial and scare-mongering, but no one was prepared for what came next. Three days after launch, a prominent political commentator and government critic, Kem Ley, was shot dead in broad daylight at a Phnom Penh gas station.
Contrary to some reports, Kem Ley had not been involved in our investigation - we had never even been in touch with him. He had, however, been contacted for comment on our findings by a number of news outlets and had given interviews to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, saying how these revelations would benefit the Cambodian people.
Kem Ley’s death was a tragic reminder of the fragility of many of the freedoms that we campaign for. He had worked tirelessly and courageously to defend Cambodians’ rights to express themselves freely and hold their government to account. On the day of his funeral tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people followed his body through the streets of Phnom Penh amid widespread calls for an independent investigation into his murder.
For our part, we’ll continue to contribute to Kem Ley’s legacy. To this end, we have made the data that informed our investigation into an online searchable database. Cambodia Corporates contains information on who owns, controls or has major stakes in companies in Cambodia, shedding light on the wealth and influence of a small elite. Already almost 2500 people have used the database - able to access company ownership data easily and securely for the first time. We hope this will assist Cambodians in their struggle for justice, by helping them to access the information they need to hold their political and business elites to account.