High-ranking officials are involved in the systematic trafficking of Chinese nationals through Cambodia to third countries, government, police and army officials said this week.
Tens of thousands of dollars monthly are made for personal gain in the trade, they said.
The operation took a hit Aug 19 when authorities arrested 225 Chinese, virtually none of whom had legal documentation, the largest single haul of illegal immigrants ever in Cambodia.
First Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Chea Sophara, who spearheaded the arrest operation, did not want to name what officials are profiting from the illegal immigrant trafficking.
“You can say it’s 100 percent sure, 200 percent sure, that high-ranking government officials are very involved,” Chea Sophara said Thursday at his office.
Military and Interior Ministry officials and Chea Sophara said that senior National Police officials and a Cambodian diplomat are involved in the practice.
“First you have to look at the immigration police department for responsibility,” said one CPP army general. “Then at the police at the border checkpoints.”
The army general, who asked not to be identified, said the diplomat’s “small men” with guns transport the immigrants by road from various points on the Vietnamese border and National Police officials fill out paperwork to ensure the Chinese leave Cambodia with proper documentation—and often with Cambodian passports.
Chea Sophara said: “They leave in a legal way and arrive in another country as a legal arrival. But really, they are not legal.”
Chief of Immigration Police Prok Saroeun denied Wednesday that his department was involved in assisting illegal Chinese to leave the country. “I do not know who is involved in this, but I know my department is not. I do not know who brought them [the arrested Chinese] here,” Prok Saroeun said by telephone.
Teng Savong, the deputy director general of National Police, which holds jurisdiction over the immigration police department, said Thursday he was too busy to comment on the case of the 225 arrested Chinese nationals.
Almost all of the Chinese remain detained at immigration police headquarters near Pochentong Airport.
Chea Sophara said the support of key police and government officials made it possible to carry out the arrests.
“I cannot do this by myself,” Chea Sophara said. “I am a small man…These officials [involved in the trafficking] are powerful and have money. They are very unhappy with me now.”
Chhin Chanpor, the commander of Phnom Penh’s Military Police, said Thursday that he and Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun were present with Chea Sophara on Aug 19 when the arrests were made at a house in Tuol Kok district.
“[Chea Sophara] initiated and led the operation,” Chhin Chanpor said by telephone.
He said he supported the arrests because, “illegal Chinese in Cambodia are increasing.”
Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said Thursday that while illegal immigrants pass through many Southeast Asian nations, not only Cambodia, the recent arrests were worrying.
“This question is of the utmost concern to the Australian government and we are following the situation closely,” the ambassador said, adding that his country was a destination for many illegal immigrants from the region.
Another Western embassy official said Thursday that Chinese nationals passing through Cambodia and onward to third countries and ultimately to Western nations has been an issue for his country.
“We don’t know the specifics of how and where they are going but we are concerned that this is a widespread scheme,” said the embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to Interior Ministry sources, officials have long known about the illegal trafficking of Chinese nationals, but it has been—until now—off limits to any police action. In 1996, police officials apprehended from a house in Tuol Kok district 87 Chinese nationals suspected of entering the country illegally, but top officials were not affected by the investigation.
Reports of an increased level of intensity in the business came last year, Chea Sophara said.
“I and many other people noticed foreigners at Pochentong Airport with Cambodian passports….They would be on flights and at the immigration counter with Cambodian passports but couldn’t speak Khmer,” Chea Sophara said.
According to Chea Sophara, with collusion of border police, most batches of illegal Chinese enter Cambodia along the Vietnamese border in Kampot or Svay Rieng provinces, and are then escorted in groups to Phnom Penh by armed men loyal to a government official posted overseas.
Later, immigration police at Pochentong Airport help the Chinese leave Cambodia, Chea Sophara said.
According to an Asian diplomat based in Phnom Penh, there is a political motive to Chea Sophara’s move against the powerful interests protecting the trade: it has boosted his popularity with many in the government, and it might also impress some of the city’s residents.
“This is what you could call a turf war between two officials,” the diplomat said.
A law enforcement officer said Tuesday that documents relating to the 225 Chinese were not destroyed in an Aug 22 fire at the Immigration Police headquarters but other incriminating documents connected to the long-running racket were burned.
“They were afraid that after the arrest of the Chinese, an investigation would begin so they destroyed any evidence,” the official alleged, claiming that a mobile phone was given to the man responsible for the blaze. Officials are still investigating.
A senior Interior official familiar with the immigration police department said Tuesday that while the business of smuggling Chinese has been known to authorities, the failure to crack-down was based more on practical than political reasons.
“We thought about stopping the business but what would we do with the Chinese when we arrested them?”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann, Van Roeun and Chris Decherd)