Cambodia's long-serving dictator Hun Sen nearly lost power in 2013 when an opposition party mobilized over Facebook (Hun Sen recovered by mastering Facebook and using it to crush the opposition, whose leaders are now exiled.
The scare prompted Hun Sen's inner circle — relatives, cronies — to prepare to flee the country should the political winds shift for good. They bought "golden passports" from Cyprus, a country that turned to selling EU passports through "investor visas" out of desperation after the 2008 crisis and the ensuing austerity.
Now, distaff relations and "business associates" of Hun Sen have turned themselves into the Cambodian edition of the Rich Kids of Instagram, creating social media streams of them driving flash Mercedes while clutching fistfulls of high-denomination banknotes and so forth.
Some of these "business associates" have very unsavory personal and commercial histories, like Pheapimex founders Choeung Sopheap and Lau Ming Kan, whose firms have been accused of mass-scale, years-long illegal logging and evicting thousands of Phnom Penh families, using law enforcement to beat and jail those who protested.
Reuters documents the process by which Hun Sen's circle of wealthy Cambodian criminals and extended family became Cypriots-by-courtesy, relying on leaked official Cypriot government documents that also expose Pricewaterhousecooper's role in greasing the path for them.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen continues to present himself to Cambodians as a man of the people, insisting that it is the disloyal opposition who secretly secured second passports, and declaring his intention "to eat grass with the Cambodian people."
For some members of Cambodia's elite, Cypriot passports are trappings of luxurious lifestyles that could undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen's self-styled image as the humble leader of a party representing ordinary Cambodians.
Wealth is a touchy subject in Cambodia. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 70% of people live on about $3 a day, and Hun Sen has long projected himself as a leader who suffers alongside his poorest compatriots. Speaking at a factory near Phnom Penh in February, he said he didn't have a second nationality or a house abroad, and chose instead "to eat grass with the Cambodian people."
Yet many relatives with the Hun family name flaunt their wealth on social media accounts. One photo on Instagram shows two of the prime minister's nieces, Hun Kimleng and Hun Chantha, posing in ballgowns and matching golden necklaces. Other photos document their near-constant travel, often by private jet, to fashion shows in Paris, a hillside villa in Mykonos, and London nightclubs like Loulou's. Hun Chantha also co-owns London apartments worth £5 million, property records show.
Hun Panhaboth, the son of another niece, gave his girlfriend a Mercedes-Benz for her birthday, according to photos on Facebook. Most Cambodians were "happy and congratulated us," Hun Panhaboth told Reuters. "I don't think this gift makes Prime Minister Hun Sen look bad in any shape or form."
Khmer Riche [Clare Baldwin and Andrew RC Marshall/Reuters]
(via Naked Capitalism)