At least 16 members of Cambodia’s National Assembly or Senate are being investigated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in connection with obtaining fraudulent visas at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Spokesmen for both houses of parliament confirmed that members are under investigation, but would not identify them or say how many are involved.
Other government sources said “at least 16 lawmakers” from all three political parties are involved. Investigators say people buy the false visas, travel to the US and disappear, hoping to obtain legal residency later.
Two of the 16 lawmakers have been previously identified: Nguon Nhel, a ranking member of the CPP and second deputy president of the National Assembly; and Khieu San, a Funcinpec senator.
Khieu San denied the charges, while Nguon Nhel could not be reached for comment. Ung Roeung Rith, Nguon Nhel’s cabinet chief, said neither Nguon Nhel nor his staff has traveled abroad recently.
“I think this is a mistake,” he said. “Nguon Nhel never left for America. He went to Vietnam in September for medical treatment” but has since returned, Ung Roeung Rith said.
Officials at the US Embassy welcomed the news of a broader investigation. “We understand that attention is being paid to this at quite a high level, and they are conducting an internal investigation, which we welcome,” one official said Thursday.
The official said two embassy employees were dismissed from the visa section several months ago amid allegations of wrongdoing. Asked if they might have been facilitating the visa scam, the official said: “I can’t rule it out.”
Foreign Ministry officials and Ministry of Interior police, who asked not to be identified, say the lucrative trade in false US visas dates back to the government elected in 1993.
“It is an easy way for [officials] to make money, by just designating [fake] assistants to accompany a delegation abroad,” said one. An official at the Foreign Ministry said the going rate for a false visa is between $15,000 and $20,000.
Allegations of fraud first surfaced earlier this month, when officials at the US Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed they were investigating a list of 17 names submitted by the ministry to the embassy for visas.
The names were of people said to be assistants or officials with the Ministry of Tourism, municipal police, a Senate delegation, and Nguon Nhel’s staff.
Senator Khieu San has been questioned about the alleged use of his wife’s name to arrange a false visa for a woman.
“I deny everything,” said an indignant Khieu San. “I do not take people to the US. I only took my wife, in August 2000, to the US. I never took another girl, claimed as my wife, to accompany me overseas.”
Khieu San said that he was questioned by US Embassy officials, and that he explained that someone had used his wife’s name fraudulently, and hadn’t even spelled it right.
In a separate interview, Khieu San’s wife, Neang Chhayana, said she had indeed accompanied him to the US in 2000, but that he had taken another trip in 2001.
Asked about that second trip, Khieu San at first denied it ever happened. But the next day he said he had gone to the US in 2001, but had traveled alone.
“This issue is already over, so you should not stir it up,” he said. “Right now I am very busy helping the poor and flooded people and giving aid to them.”
One of the names on the list being investigated is Cheat Bunchhay, a former assistant to Funcinpec Senator Kem Sokha. Cheat Bunchhay left for the US with a visa and did not return. The senator said Cheat Bunchhay betrayed his trust and has been fired.
“I am very disappointed and sorry that my assistant treated me so unfairly,” Kem Sokha said. “I was careless, and it was an accident.”
He said Cheat Bunchhay was scheduled to depart from Cambodia on Aug 28 as part of a legitimate delegation, but when his visa arrived early on Aug 24, he didn’t wait around.
“After he had left, a relative called Aug 27 to say he had gone on ahead to visit relatives in the US, and he would see me in California,” Kem Sokha said.
In fact, Cheat Bunchhay “took this opportunity to get into the US. He didn’t tell me the truth,” Kem Sokha said.
A Foreign Ministry official said the visa scam is not limited to the institutions that have been named so far. “It is not just the lawmakers, but government officials have done this a lot,” the official said. “It is very big business.”
A CPP senator who asked not to be named said officials from across the government have wrangled visas for “assistants” and “wives” who do not exist. “We all know that this is happening,” the senator said.
An Interior Ministry police official claims Immigration Police officials at Pochentong Airport have repeatedly secured visas for alleged family members who in fact are people who have paid as much as $15,000 for passage to the US. The official said it’s not uncommon for people to go through “brokers” with connections in the government to obtain visas.
In addition to the profit motive, some officials say it is good for Cambodians to go to the US, where they can get a good education, a good job, and earn money to send to Cambodia.
“It develops human resources,” the CPP senator said, “but making money this way is against the law. Still, it is better than drug trafficking.”
One elderly Phnom Penh resident who refused to be identified said he had paid $18,000 to get a visa for his son, who now lives in the US. He would not say which branch of the government helped him get the visa.
“It is easy to go to the US, and you don’t have to worry about being arrested if you pay enough money,” he said. The elderly man is planning to sell his house and use the money to buy visas for his other two children.
Um Sarith, secretary-general of the Senate, said he has stopped signing applications for “assistants” to go overseas, and that the Senate will no longer approve such applications.
“The new plan is we [the senate secretariat] will not sign and coordinate for a senator’s personal assistant, or family member. We will only do so for a senator,” he said.
Chan Ven, deputy secretary-general of the National Assembly, said that body will also be more careful. “According to the law, each parliamentarian has the right to have one driver and one assistant, but some have many bodyguards and assistants,” he said.
“From now on, I will strictly examine every proposal to eliminate fraud,” Chan Ven said. “This has a very bad effect on the National Assembly.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)