Drug lord turns Cambodia into a 'mafia state'

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

It was not supposed to turn out like this. The international community, through the United Nations, spent an unprecedented $3bn to shepherd Cambodia towards democracy, protect it from the Khmer Rouge and install a democratically elected government.

Disillusion is too weak a word to describe what has happened since the last United Nations troops pulled out in 1993. The hoped-for democracy has been replaced by an increasingly intolerant and ruthless government with strong ties to big-league drug smugglers. The voices of opposition are being quickly snuffed out.

The most recent opposition figure to feel the government's wrath is Prince Norodom Sirivudh, half-brother of King Norodom Sihanouk, and uncle of Norodom Ranariddh, who is supposed to be one of Cambodia's co-prime ministers.

In theory the ties of family should have made him safe but his arrest on sketchy charges of attempting to assassinate the other co-prime minister, Hun Sen, speaks volumes about who is really in charge.

Prince Sirivudh is both an MP and secretary-general of the royalist Funcinpec party, which won the election.

Mr Hun Sen's former Communist Cambodian People's Party was brought into the government in an attempt to secure national reconciliation.

Yet it is Mr Hun Sen and his colleagues who call the shots and in effect tell the royal family what to do.

Mr Hun Sen is a sombre 44-year-old, whose guerrilla background in the Khmer Rouge left an instinct for authoritarian government.

The only pressure King Sihanouk appeared to be able to exert on his half- brother's behalf was to get him moved from the T-3 prison to the less uncomfortable surroundings of detention in the Ministry of the Interior.

Some observers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, remain unsure how Mr Hun Sen managed to achieve what amounts to a coup d'etat. Others maintain that it comes down to a matter of money.

Mr Hun Sen was prepared to throw in his lot with the shadowy businessman Theng Bunma, who is not only reputed to be the richest man in Cambodia but also an international-league drug-runner.

The funds supplied by Mr Bunma and his associates are said to have provided the means to secure the loyalty of a large section of the state apparatus, particularly the armed forces, whose allegiance to ideology is far weaker than their need for money. In return, the Hun Sen-led government has allowed Cambodia to become a major drug-trafficking centre.

The most vocal critic of government corruption, the former finance minister Sam Rainsy, is dicing with death by breaking with the regime and attempting to establish an opposition party. He describes Cambodia as a "mafia state".

Cambodian journalists who have attempted to expose government corruption are no less vulnerable. The editor of the Voice of Khmer Youth was shot dead after publishing a detailed expose of Mr Bunma's background and drug dealing.