Cambodia’s tycoons are set to be big winners in a controversial election at the end of July, a new report by a leading human rights group has claimed, while calling for sanctions against the country’s business elite for allegedly eroding democracy.
The South East Asian nation of 16 million will vote on July 29, in a poll that has been internationally condemned after the main opposition party was dissolved by the courts last year and its leaders jailed or exiled alongside a fierce crackdown on the independent media.
Hun Sen, 65, the Cambodian leader and world’s longest serving prime minister has been accused of pushing the country to the brink of dictatorship, with the support of a dozen ruthless generals who have reportedly helped to mastermind his rise.
Now a new report by human rights group Global Witness, released on Friday, details how the Cambodian business elite, whose companies are accused of violent land-grabbing, large-scale timber smuggling and marijuana trafficking, also helps to form the backbone of the authoritarian regime.
Powerful business moguls are on course to profit from a “sham” election, the group claims in detailed research of alleged abuses released on Facebook to bypass government censorship.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political career has been built on feeding the mouths of those who support him,” said Emma Burnett, a Global Witness campaigner.
“As Global Witness investigations have revealed time and time again, his small cabal of cronies have pillaged state assets with devastating consequences. The richer and more powerful they have become, the greater their incentives to keep Hun Sen in power.”
The group is pushing for tycoons who have played a key role in “rigging Cambodian politics and its economy in their favour” to be included in a bill on targetted sanctions, currently being debated in the US Congress.
Their research reveals in particular how decades of land seizures for urban or industrial development – allegedly linked to violent attacks, bogus arrests and murder – have evicted an estimated 830,000 people, deepening poverty in deprived areas, while enriching the powerful.
Among the land grab victims is Tep Vanny, 38, a mother-of-two turned activist who will not be voting in the election because she was jailed for two and a half years in 2016 on charges of assaulting Hun Sen’s security guards.
Human rights groups claim the charges were trumped up to silence her. She had been defending her community against a luxury tourist construction project that has reportedly seen thousands of families lose their homes, and had previously been beaten, harassed and arrested.
Ms Vanny was a leading figure of the so-called ‘women of the lake’, a group resisting the development of Boeung Kak, a former tourist spot that was leased in 2007 to Shukaku, a company controlled by a Cambodian senator and ally of the prime minister.
Homes were cleared to make way for a luxury development of apartments, hotels and shopping malls and Ms Vanny has received international acclaim for her efforts to secure compensation or rehousing.
“If anyone is in trouble my daughter will support them for justice. She is so brave. My daughter cannot be bought. She stands firm and would not give up,” her mother told Amnesty International.
Shukaku did not respond to a request for comment.
The report also highlights land clearances for sugar plantations, including one infamous case dating back to 2006, when 456 families were allegedly displaced from western Koh Kong province.
Lawyers representing local communities claim two people were shot during the eviction and five people beaten by police using rifles. Without land to farm, many people were reportedly left with little choice but to become labourers on the plantation.
The alleged land seizures were carried out by two local companies that were reportedly part-owned by Ly Yong Phat, a senator who has served as an economic advisor to Hun Sen, and Thai sugar giant Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Plc.
The senator is said to have subsequently sold his shares. Efforts to contact him through his company, and to reach Khon Kaen Sugar, went unanswered.
As Cambodians head to the polling stations, Global Witness says it wants to shine a spotlight on the elusive club of politically exposed tycoons who are undermining democracy.
“For decades, Cambodians have been robbed of their land, robbed of their country’s natural wealth, and robbed of their voice. Now they are being robbed of their vote,” said Ms Burnett.
The group has called for the country’s “corrupt elite” to be held to account. “Any international efforts to tackle the premier’s corrupt and dictatorial rein must also take aim at those who bankroll his regime,” added Ms Burnett.
Separately, British lawyer, Richard Rogers, a partner at international law firm, Global Diligence, is spearheading a case at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on behalf of Cambodians who allege the ruling elite has perpetuated mass rights violations through land grabs.
“The mass forced evictions and other crimes associated with land grabbing are so widespread and systematic that they amount to crimes against humanity under international law,” Mr Rogers told the Telegraph.
“The Cambodia legal system is a tool of the ruling elite who perpetrate the crimes, so the only chance of justice is the ICC. We are expecting the ICC to take action soon.”
The tycoons were beneficiaries of a “brutal kleptocracy” that made a tiny minority wealthy while leaving the majority in abject poverty, he added. “The natural resources are being stolen for the self-enrichment of the few families close to Hun Sen.”