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An Interview With the Late Kem Ley

FILE - Kem Ley, a Cambodian analyst, discusses the meaning of color revolution and freedom of expression in Cambodia during Hello VOA call-in show in Phnom Penh, on Thursday, June 30, 2016. (Lim Sothy/VOA Khmer)
FILE - Kem Ley, a Cambodian analyst, discusses the meaning of color revolution and freedom of expression in Cambodia during Hello VOA call-in show in Phnom Penh, on Thursday, June 30, 2016. (Lim Sothy/VOA Khmer)

Two days before his death, Kem Ley gave an interview to VOA Khmer’s Sok Khemara.

[Editor’s note: Kem Ley, a researcher and commentator critical of both Cambodia’s government and opposition, was killed in broad daylight on Sunday, while taking his morning coffee at a gas station on one of Phnom Penh’s busiest intersections. Frequently interviewed by independent media, Kem Ley had gained popularity with average Cambodians in recent years for his plainspoken critiques of social trends, government policy and the influence of ruling elites. On July 8, just two days before his murder, the late Kem Ley gave an interview to VOA Khmer’s Sok Khemara. The interview was conducted by telephone the day after London-based group Global Witness published a report detailing the business interests of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which was the subject under discussion. This translated transcript has been edited for length and clarity, but Kem Ley’s responses are reproduced as fully as possible. The audio file of the Khmer-language interview, first published online on Friday, is available here.]

A lot of people have been surprised by the release of the Global Witness report criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his relatives for their control of more than 100 companies, and their alleged “Hostile Takeover” of the Cambodian economy. How serious are the allegations in this report? And is it possible that the government or the individuals—including the prime minister’s immediate family, who have reacted in the past few days—would file a lawsuit against Global Witness over these allegations?

I read this latest report, and I did read the previous [Global Witness] report from 2007 called “Family Trees,” which consists of 94 pages and 440 references. These references include case studies, contracts and images that are realistic. And there is also another [Global Witness] report about logging companies, which was released in February 2009. I remember it has 60 pages along with 429 references, and talks about a “Country for Sale.” This means that [Cambodia’s ruling elites] created companies for real estate bidding, including for buildings, state lands, economic land concessions, mining concessions and other public real estate interests. And for this report, “Hostile Takeover,” we are very certain of its reliability, since it is related to the previous two reports. This latest report is a case study. They extracted accurate data with evidence. However, the findings are still considered “understated.” This means that this report only shows what is already there on the table, and if we compare it to the pond, we only see just a few fish that are jumping above the water surface. But it is possible that there are still plenty of other fish underneath.

So does that mean there are still more companies that we don’t know about?

Yes, there are more than this because, even without Global Witness, everyone can see it. For instance, drinking water companies, electricity companies, television stations, and other businesses, such as Spark restaurant, that everyone, including me, visits. It is only about four in every 10 fish that are jumping above the water’s surface. In fact, what is important is: To what extent do [the Prime Minister's family members] dare to accept these findings, and whether they are in fact doing legitimate businesses or not. If these businesses are legal, and standardized, and you are fully paying tax, then I think that filing a lawsuit is not necessary, but explaining with evidence would be a better choice to gain the public’s trust.

A screenshot of Global Witness's Hostile Takeover site. (screenshot from Global Witness)
A screenshot of Global Witness's Hostile Takeover site. (screenshot from Global Witness)

Do you mean making the businesses legal, paying tax and explaining this are the main issues? Until now, there has been no explanation, but only strong reactions stating that they are false allegations aiming to destroy the Hun family. Are these reactions enough or could there be more studies over this case?

For now, the water is transparent, and people can see big and small fish clearly. Those explanations were just a denial since they haven’t studied the report thoroughly in order to bring up arguments one by one, which would be more beneficial. This immediate denial is part of a culture of not taking responsibility. I don’t think it is appropriate because it is the Prime Minister and his ministers who have to take full responsibility over all these three reports, from 2007, 2009 and this latest one, in July 2016. This is very crucial for them to do so. And one more thing is that they need to show integrity. Filing a lawsuit is difficult because those who wrote the report are not in Cambodia and, if they were, they would probably have been in jail for the past 24 hours already.

Showing with clarity or transparency the registration of companies or tax filings, for example, would require an independent audit. But, in a country controlled by the prime minister, who would dare to do independent auditing? Also, does the report mean that the Prime Minister’s family is doing illegal stuff, or is it just trying to show that everything is under one family’s control? What’s your opinion?

I think, about this report, I’m not sure what the objective or direction of the Global Witness report’s author is, but the data from all those three reports provide a lot of benefits [for the public]. First, it provides clear information to local and international investors so that they can make decisions on how to do business and how to compete, or whether they should invest more. Or they could decide to withdraw their investment, or they could cooperate and work here with caution. Second, it’s important for voters to decide whether to continue to support this kind of society and culture, or not. Usually, we have seen the physical infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and some roads donated by this person or by that person—like son, like father. So then, will people keep supporting this kind of culture? If they do, they will keep supporting the status quo. But some might say, “No, I don’t.” Transparency is crucial for them to make a decision when they vote. And third, another importance of this report that I see is that it will help inform some officials, other government officials, some of whom are clean. Some of them also own companies; some don’t. What do they think about this? And the Anti-Corruption Unit, as well as the National Assembly, whose jobs include checking the government, and other relevant institutions, especially the National Audit Authority, do they dare to investigate? How far are they willing to go? I doubt they will. But even if they don’t, the report still provides an historical record of the country’s leadership.

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer, says that if the prime minister or his family wants to sue, they will have to file a lawsuit in a court in the country in which the organization is based. For example, Global Witness is based in England, so they can file a lawsuit in a court of the England. Has this ever happened before? As you mentioned that there have been previous investigative reports, but the government didn’t file a lawsuit. The business people whose names are included in the report could also have filed a lawsuit, but they didn’t. What do you make of that?

Generally, if the government looked into this report, point by point, and gave an explanation, that would have been the best [response]. But if they are brave enough to file a lawsuit in the country where the organization is located, that would be great, to clean their name. Like a Khmer saying goes, “Gold is not afraid of fire.” But, generally, they are not clean enough to dare to file a lawsuit [in the U.K.] because, as we know, in Cambodia there are a lot of black markets. Some customs officials, whom I’ve talked to, said that 10 or 20 trucks from Vietnam don't pay tax; they just pay $100 for each truck for the customs officials’ “meal fee.” If they pay proper tax, it would be thousands of dollars. For boats of roof tiles or other goods from Vietnam, they just pay a lump-sum amount per boat. If they had paid tax, it would have been hundreds of dollars. And we all can see that in Cambodia, there are a lot of trucks with military license plates that have been used for business purposes all over the country. And, using state materials, vehicles and positions to oversee companies during government working hours is also a form of corruption. So, I think, they don’t have the guts to file a lawsuit. But if they do, I totally encourage it, and if the government wants to explain that this is not true and seeks collaboration and to investigate whether it’s true or not, my team would be more than happy to participate to help find out if it is true or not.

You mentioned the historical record. If there is no meaningful audit, does that mean the historical record is buried?

It is not too hopeless because nothing is permanent. In circumstances in which there are changes in politics, and leadership, the next leaders—from the same party or a different party—are able to investigate to see how much this case is appropriate and true, or how it is not appropriate and not true. A historical record is important; it is not abnormal. In Thailand, the Thaksin [Shinawatra] family behaves similarly, but not as much as [Hun Sen’s]. Many of [Thaksin's] business companies are transparent. However, he still used his power to help his wife and children’s businesses. Before [Thaksin's sister] Yingluck became Prime Minster, she had been doing business. It was important for the Thai people at that time to consider about that. Now the most important question is whether the [Cambodian people] will accept this culture in the future. This is important, and I follow that news because I am also a researcher. I read those reports closely because it is for us to analyze it correctly.

Whether at the regional or global level, when people are in power, they often accumulate a lot of wealth. But when they lose power, they are charged for corruption. Do you think there have been any mistakes in the way this has happened elsewhere? And is it possible to collect the wealth from those who lose power?

I have seen, generally, in Thailand, that members of the Thaksin family have been accused. In Indonesia, after Suharto, there was political compromise because people were worried that there could be retaliation from the military or some of Suharto's generals against the revolutionists, so they compromised. In the Philippines, after Marcos, there were some arrests and there were also some investigations, but not many because they were afraid of chaos in the society. It was because people who had power and a lot of money had strong networks and could affect commerce and the economy. But the case in Cambodia is different because we have ratified treaties, conventions, pacts or agreements regionally and globally. So, based on the legal hierarchy, below the Constitution, are those treaties and conventions. And the Anti-Corruption Law should be in line with those treaties, conventions and the Constitution. So, when we [in Cambodia] have power, we should be bound by some principles to avoid corruption, including the principle of conflict of interest. When we are in power, we do not have the right to run a business and neither do our relatives and spouses. However, the Anti-Corruption Law does not include this point. Therefore, this law does not comply with the treaties and pacts that we have ratified. This is a problem for us in the future. If our law would have complied with [those accords], and people violated the laws, then [our system] could have been sufficient in addressing problems.

The government shut down the Global Witness office in Cambodia more than 10 years ago and has not let the group’s staff work in the country since. Do you think this makes it hard for the organization to conduct this kind of research?

One thing to know is that if we are clean and we do not have a hidden agenda, there is nothing to be angry about with nongovernmental organizations. Instead, we should welcome them because they do not need our money to hire staff to investigate in order to write reports. If it were me, I would not only keep them, but also provide them with money to work on report, because we want our country to be clean. But maybe it was not like that. This is the first thing. The second thing is I see that the network is not only within one family; it is more than that. Now I raise an example of the Minister of Mines and Energy—his wife also has many companies. So I think that there is something more. Practices become group-think, which means there are problems in our country.​