Two top government officials made a preemptive move Tuesday to deny what they call lies linking a Cambodian political party with Thai officials laundering the proceeds of illegal Iraqi oil deals.
Om Yentieng, adviser to the Prime Minister, and Council of Ministers spokesman Khieu Thavika said in a statement Tuesday that information about to be published (they wouldn’t say by whom) is just a plot to embarrass the government at the Consultative Group meeting which begins today in Paris.
“The news is ready to be published which says that Thai leaders have colluded and helped Iraq sell its oil….The Thais have sent six containers of dinar (Iraqi currency) to Cambodia and officials of a political party in Cambodia accepted to help change this money…into another currency that can be easily used,” claims the statement.
The UN imposed sanctions after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, making it illegal for member nations to buy oil from Iraq.
Om Yentieng and Khieu Thavika say the lies are being spread by forces attempting to wreck Cambodia’s chances of receiving an estimated $500 million in aid money.
“We believe that this poisoned news is clearly intended to destroy the will of the Consultative Group meeting in Paris,” the statement said.
A spokesman for the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh said Tuesday that he knew nothing about the charges, although he did discuss a similar, earlier case involving Thai officials. In March, two Thais and a Singaporean were arrested in a sting operation by customs authorities in the US on charges of attempting to buy 160,000 tons of Iraqi oil to sell in Asia. One, Surasak Nananukul, is the chief economic adviser to former Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.
The Thai Embassy official said that Surasak is fighting the case, claiming US authorities abused their powers. Whatever the source, at least one Asian diplomat in Phnom Penh said Tuesday that he saw some Iraqi currency in February. He said he was told the currency and Iraqi gold were part of a money-laundering scheme between a former premier of Thailand and high-ranking officials in Cambodia.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, declined to comment on the case Monday.
Om Yentieng wouldn’t say who he thinks is spreading the story, though he did say that the government does not suspect the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
He said a number of people who have approached Cambodian currency changers and private banks to change Iraqi currency are being investigated.
One Western banking expert said Tuesday it would be extremely difficult to do anything with Iraqi dinar as it cannot be converted into other currencies or used outside Iraq. Similarly, money could be more easily laundered through Bangkok banks than Phnom Penh banks, he added.
“It doesn’t make sense. They would have to get [the money] back to Iraq to spend it,” the banking expert said.
Staffers at the Canadia Bank in Phnom Penh and at Ly Hour currency exchange shop said that they have been approached by Cambodians trying to change Iraqi dinar for other currencies.
“We didn’t want to buy it because there is nowhere we can use this money,” said a staff member at Ly Hour who was approached several times last year.
The Canadia Bank was approached last week by a man trying to sell the currency, but said bank officials refused to convert the dinar for the same reason.