Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday declared his personal assets to the Anticorruption Unit, an obligation for nearly 25,000 government officials under the recently adopted anticorruption law.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Hun Sen said that his monthly salary amounted to about $1,150. For anything else, he said his children would help support him.
All in all, the earnings of Cambodia’s most powerful man amount to just short of $14,000 per year.
That amount is small compared to leaders salaries’ in developed countries. US President Barack Obama is paid $400,000 per year and is reported to have earned millions more in book deals. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is paid about $330,000 a year.
But the low wages of high-ranking officials here prompts the question: Why can so many government officials here be seen driving down Phnom Penh’s boulevards inside luxury cars before parking at mansions?
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said government officials were able to earn extra money by having wives in business and noted that government officials were banned from owning large companies in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
“We can afford this since 1979. Before we do not have a salary, just only rice and sugar,” he said when asked how government officials here can afford expensive cars and houses. “Most of them depend on their wife, frankly speaking.”
Analysts say government officials here may use their influence and power to promote business opportunities for relatives.
“If you’re in politics, it is easier to secure or promote your business,” said Sek Barisoth, who ran the anticorruption project for the NGO Pact Cambodia between 2005 and 2009 and is now director of the organization’s media program. “Of course it’s power, something to do with power.”
Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney, who is also the wife of Chhan Saphan, a secretary of state at the Land Management Ministry, has been accused by ethnic Jarai villagers in Ratanakkiri province of cheating them out of 450 hectares where she is planning a rubber plantation.
Asked if government officials used their power and influence to promote their wives’ businesses, Lt Gen Sopheak of the Interior Ministry said: “Please ask them. I don’t know.”
Mr Chhon in 2006 pointedly denied that he had had any involvement in Ms Kolney’s activities.
“I am not involved. I don’t know about that case,” he told reporters following a meeting with aid donors. “I do not know what my sister has done.”
Efforts to reach some of the more prominent government leaders with well-known family-business connections were unsuccessful yesterday. Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith did not respond to requests for comment.
But whatever the advantages such businesses may or may not gain from their connections, it is plain to see that many Cambodian businesses are kin to power, and vice versa.
Hun Seng Ny, the premier’s sister, is part owner of HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd, according to company employees. The firm has a large-scale investment in a Kompong Speu province corn plantation.
Mao Malay, the wife of former RCAF Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan, owns YLP Group, which is jointly developing the 260-hectare Grand Phnom Penh International City in Phnom Penh’s outskirts.
Chea Kheng, the wife of Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem, owns KDC Development, which has been locked in a long-standing land dispute with villagers in Kompong Chhnang province.
The wife of RCAF Major General Nim Meng, Lay Sineang, is director of the copper mining firm Nim Meng Group, according to government documents.
RCAF Commander-in-Chief General Pol Saroeun has been frequently identified as a stakeholder in Ratanak Stone Cambodia Development. His wife, Noup Sidara, is the managing director, according to a lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While speaking at the National Assembly on Friday, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said making government officials declare their assets painted only a small part of the picture.
“What is more serious is the wife and children of senior government official, who use their husband’s influence,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that owning a business while in government was not a crime in itself, but that officials could use their power to help advance the interests of their companies.
“If you have a business and you are a relative of a high-ranking official, [and] the customer and police know, they will tolerate you,” he said.
Mr Barisoth of PACT said many officials in the government had made their money from owning land and property, both of which have greatly increased in value since Cambodia entered an era of peace in the late ’90s.
“When Cambodia opened its markets, the cost of property increased and some people made money out of that,” he said.
But in other cases, he said high-ranking officials use their power and influence to promote companies belonging to close relatives.
“In Cambodia, there are a lot of cases related to conflict of interest,” Mr Barisoth said. “It’s not difficult to understand that politics is connected to business.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)