Leaks Link Hun Manith, NagaCorp CEO to Khmer Times

A fresh set of what appear to be leaked SMS conversations show telephone numbers apparently belonging to the CEO of NagaCorp and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s second son discussing funding of the Khmer Times—allegations denied by the English-language newspaper’s publisher.

The conversations seem to show billionaire Naga CEO Chen Lip Keong, identified in the messages and on Naga’s website as Tan Sri, demanding Khmer Times publisher T. Mohan alter news stories and cut costs. The exchanges also appear to show Mr. Chen discussing funding of the paper with Hun Manith, a major general in the army and director of the Defense Ministry’s military intelligence unit.

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Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Mohan, a Malaysian businessman who was caught plagiarizing opinion pieces and letters to the editor in 2015, on Wednesday slammed the messages as “fictitious” and “malicious” and threatened legal action against The Cambodia Daily.

“There is no transaction except advert n bulk sales,” Mr. Mohan said of his relationship with Mr. Chen, in a message on WhatsApp, using the same number that appears in the apparent leaks. He later added that he had “not met either of them,” referring to Mr. Chen and Major General Manith.

“Looks like your paper has a fetish on Khmer Times n myself n are stooping to any leve[l] to harm the paper n myself,” he wrote. “This will be met by legal suit.”

The man who answered the telephone number appearing in the chats assigned to Mr. Chen hung up on a reporter. Maj. Gen. Manith, who granted the Khmer Times an exclusive interview in June, responded to questions about the veracity of the messages by telling a reporter to ask if they were real.

“Are you well trained?” he said in a WhatsApp message from the same number that appears in the alleged leaks.

“I have an allergy with PPP and CD,” he said, referring to The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily, the country’s two other English-language dailies, “that is why I dont give any comments.”

The trove of text messages from phone numbers identified as belonging to 20 prominent officials and businessmen, including multiple children of both Mr. Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, were sent by an anonymous leaker to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who in turn forwarded the messages to media outlets on Wednesday.

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Hun Manith. (Reuters)

The accuracy of the SMS messages spanning from September to last month have not been confirmed, though any forger would seem to have an intimate understanding of the names, dates and events surrounding them.

On September 26, for example, the Khmer Times tweeted an article titled “Victims Allege NagaWorld Kidnapping,” which has since been removed from the newspaper’s website.

“The heading of nagaworld kidnapping is a point for concern,” said a message sent from the number allegedly belonging to Mr. Chen to Mr. Mohan’s number on September 27. “The company takes a serious view of the article. Next time to editor should be more careful.”

Mr. Mohan appears to repent.

“Yes sir. I m sorry,” the message says. “Will add to the clarification sir.”

“Can u help to retract the article on top of the correction[?]” says a message apparently from Mr. Chen.

“Will remove from web also sir,” says a message allegedly from Mr. Mohan.

A message from Mr. Chen’s number appears to chide Mr. Mohan again on February 13, when the newspaper ran a story, since removed from the website, called “Gaming Tax to Fall in Cambodia.”

“For yo[ur] info the tax rate did not fall. If u ask [Finance Ministry spokesman] Rosphiron; the tax rate increases significantly over the past,” Mr. Chen’s number writes that afternoon. “It is misreporting by yo[u] guys. Writer has to understand before writing otherwise it gives opposition party to raise isssue to attack the government when in fact there is no issue.”

“Suggest if u correct; let us n MOEF look at draft,” the number adds, in a reference to the Economy and Finance Ministry.

“We will do a detailed report on the gaming tax n follow your cue on competitive regime with research n input from MEF n also your kind self,” Mr. Mohan’s number responds. “When done will seek your kind vetting.”

Mr. Mohan did not respond on Wednesday to questions about whether he had ever altered editorial content at Mr. Chen’s request.

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The second edition of the Khmer Times is displayed for sale at a newspaper stall along Street 51 in Phnom Penh in 2014. (Siv Channa)

The alleged conversations also seem to highlight the sprawling connections of Mr. Chen, a Malaysian former doctor who “leases 2 Airbus A320s to fly in customers from Macau and mainland China” to NagaWorld and who has a net worth of $1.64 billion, according to Forbes. NagaCorp holds the exclusive right to operate a casino in Phnom Penh until 2035.

Elsewhere in the chats, messages from Mr. Chen’s number mention “Philip Lee.” Philip Lee Wai Tuck is listed on Naga’s website as the company’s executive director.

In one December exchange, a message from Mr. Mohan’s number appears to ask Mr. Chen to “assist with payroll” and assures him that he is cutting printing and staffing costs.

Mr. Chen then apparently shoots a text to Maj. Gen. Manith.

“I told Philip to inform Mohan that we will sign the cheque of balance on 1 Jan 2017 as Auditor is auditing our book now,” the message says.

“Also relayed to mohan we are helping the 65 k he asks. Don’t worry,” it says.

The messages seemingly show Mr. Chen then following up the next day.

“Just talk to mohan,” a message from Mr. Chen’s number says. “Was told Philip gave him 120k in oct n nov. this month Philip told me he will give another 65k…. Mohan has to cut costs.”

The alleged leaks do not show any response from Maj. Gen. Manith.

On January 7, the messages show Mr. Chen apparently inquiring about the status of “the riverside land” and asking the prime minister’s son to a meeting.

“Find a good one you are free we talk how we can help boost yup Khmer times,” the message says. “We have a working lunch.”

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