In the five years since the Cambodian People’s Party vowed to tame the Khmer diaspora in Australia, wealthy Cambodians have brought vast sums of wealth to the country.
For decades, Cambodians fleeing successive autocratic governments have found sanctuary in Australia. But over the last five years, some of the current regime’s closest allies have begun to follow its victims to the Land Down Under, taking with them the vast wealth that flows to those with proximity to power in Phnom Penh.
Radio Free Asia has identified Australian assets worth tens of millions of dollars held by 14 individuals from four of Cambodia’s most powerful families.
Comprised of real estate and business interests, the Australian assets largely came to be owned by family members of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senator Lau Meng Khin, Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth, and Land Management Minister Chea Sophara in the five years since 2015.
Divide and conquer
The summer of 2015 marked the start of a carrot-and-stick campaign by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, to bring the Khmer diaspora to heel, perhaps most pointedly in Australia.
Although not quite defeated, the CPP had taken a kicking in the 2013 general elections, thanks in large part to the opposition enjoying a campaign war chest bankrolled by donations from the diaspora. Determined not to repeat the humiliation, the CPP established “working groups” to bring overseas Cambodians onside, or failing that to bully them into silence.
Announced in an official circular in June 2015, in Australia the policy saw the CPP dividing the country into seven zones, with each zone overseen by a president drawn from Phnom Penh’s ruling class.
The presidents’ job is to oversee party activities in their zone, be that the throwing of banquets to curry favour with the local diaspora community or summoning large groups to show support for visiting Cambodian government officials in the hope of drowning out critical protestors.
However, Cambodian-Australian activists say that these activities are merely the palatable face of a policy that has seen community members intimidated and even threatened with death.
Cash follows cadres
Australia’s second-most populous city Melbourne is home to one of the country’s largest Khmer communities — and some of the CPP’s loudest critics.
The CPP zone president there is Lau Vann – deputy commander of the Cambodian army’s notorious Brigade 70 and scion of perhaps the most powerful family in the Khmer business community in Australia. The family is presided over by his father, Senator Lau Meng Khin, and step-mother, Choeung Sopheap. Sopheap is a successful tycoon in her own right described as a business partner of Hun Sen’s wife in a 2007 cable sent from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to Washington.
In October 2015, four months after Vann was announced CPP zone president for Melbourne, property deeds show his wife Choeung Sokuntheavy, who is also his step-sister, bought a luxury apartment on the 24th floor of one of the city’s most exclusive tower blocks for 4 million Australian dollars (US$2.9 million).
In the years since, Vann and Sokuntheavy have used the apartment as their home address when founding two Australian businesses, including a Melbourne bakery run since December 2019 by their daughter, Lau Jia Zhen.
Jia Zhen, who turned 20 in October, got engaged earlier this year to Aun Pornmonireach, 23, son of Cambodian Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth and businesswoman Im Paulika. The young couple’s families already had extensive Cambodian business ties to each other, and both had participated in the trend for wealthy Cambodians to park money in Australia.
The finance minister and his wife made international headlines in 2019 when Reuters revealed they had acquired Cypriot citizenship by investment. RFA can reveal that in early 2018 their son, Pornmonireach, also applied for Cypriot citizenship. All applicants are obliged to announce their intention to acquire citizenship in one of the island nation’s newspapers. Pornmonireach chose to announce his in Haravgi. The fate of his application is unknown.
In July 2014, Paulika spent A$2.1 million (US$1.5 million) on an apartment in Sydney’s One Central Park, property deeds show. A prestige development with hanging gardens and a shopping mall, Pornmonireach lived at One Central Park while he was studying and described the building in a piece of coursework as “a symbol of a postmodern age.”
When Paulika founded an Australian company in 2016 – the now defunct Camtrade Enterprises Pty Ltd – she gave Phnom Penh rather than One Central Park as her address. But when Pornmonireach registered a company as a vehicle to own a “Fun House” Chinese restaurant franchise in 2018, he listed the Sydney apartment as his home.
On the opposite end of Lau Vann’s family tree, his half-sister Lau Sok Huy (who also goes by Michelle Lau), her brother Lau Yao Zhong (who goes by Alex), and her husband Pich Aphirak all own or manage multiple Australian businesses established since 2015.
Aphirak’s brother-in-law is Hun Manet, commander of the Cambodian army, eldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and widely tipped as his successor. Manet’s cousin Hun To has long been the roguish playboy of Cambodia’s ruling family and nowhere is his reputation as a rogue greater than in Australia.
Hun To featured prominently in The Sting, a 2012 book by investigative journalist Nick McKenzie about Australian law enforcement’s attempts to tackle the international drugs trade. According to McKenzie, in 2003 Hun To was a target of an Australian police investigation into the smuggling of heroin from Cambodia to Australia in timber shipments.
McKenzie claimed Hun To only evaded arrest thanks to the intervention of Australian embassy officials in Phnom Penh seeking to avoid a diplomatic incident, but that his Cambodian-Australian underling and bodyguard, Thai Phany, was convicted over an attempt to import 300 grams of heroin from Cambodia as part of the same operation.
When confronted with the accusations in 2012, Hun To claimed to have no connections to the drugs trade and even went so far as to deny knowing Phany. That claim would be difficult for him to repeat today. Phany is married to his cousin Hun Chanthol.
Until this year, Hun To did not officially have a business presence in Australia. However, his wife, Jackie Thai, a relative of Phany, has owned multiple houses around Melbourne in recent decades – most recently in 2016 dropping just shy of A$1 million ($809,000) on two adjoining lots where she is building an enormous family home, property deeds show.
She also established her first Australian business in 2015, founding two more in 2020, including one, J & H Capital Investment Pty Ltd, with her controversial husband.
In September 2016, Australian real estate trade publications were abuzz with the news that a couple “from one of Cambodia’s ruling families” had bought a waterfront property in the leafy Sydney suburb of Clonarf. The sale was headline news because it’s A$11 million (US$8.1 million) price tag was 26 percent higher than the neighbourhood’s previous record of A$8.7 million.
Last year, the buyers – Mongkol Phara and Tao Madina – were revealed by Mother Nature Cambodia, an NGO, to be the son and daughter-in-law of Land Management Minister Chea Sophara. Noting that Phara’s official salary as chief of cabinet in his father’s ministry was unlikely to cover the US$8.1 million purchase, the NGO called on Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit to investigate where the money came from.
Mother Nature Cambodia also claimed that neither husband nor wife had any businesses to their names to explain the source of the funds. While this may have been true prior to the purchase of the 3,668 square meter home, in the years since both have put their names to a brace of Australian companies.
Promotional materials for their latest venture, Empress Asset Management, described the company as a, “quantitative investment company trading in equity markets driven to producing outstanding returns by solely respecting strict formulas.”
Tip of the iceberg
Despite being valued in the tens of millions of dollars, the assets uncovered by RFA and others account for only a tiny fraction of the riches hauled to Australia by wealthy Cambodians since the CPP began its public relations push in 2015.
Like many countries, Australia offers visas to foreign nationals willing to invest in the local economy. Data released to RFA by the Australian Department for Home Affairs show a total of A$38.5 million (US$29.7 million) was invested in Australia by Cambodian citizens as part of successful investor visa applications between July 2015 and November 2020.
Kem Monovithya, a spokesperson for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and daughter of the party’s leader, told RFA she was not shocked by these figures.
“I’m not surprised. Australia is the number one destination for Cambodia’s thugs,” Monovithya said, going on to call for great scrutiny of Cambodian capital entering the Australian economy. “The sources of this money are from corruption and human rights abuses.”
Detailed requests for comment were emailed to Lau Vann, Phara Mongkol, and to the contact email addresses for two of Hun To’s Cambodian businesses. None of these requests were met with responses. Aun Ponrmonireach and Im Paulika were not reachable for comment.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Home Affairs did not respond directly to questions over concerns that large sums being invested by Cambodians may be tainted by corrupt practices or human rights abuses.
They did say, however, that all visa applications are run through a wide range of security and character checks, including “close scrutiny of applicants’ financial arrangements and history, including verifying the sources of applicants’ funds through the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) database, and referring cases where appropriate to the Australian Federal Police.”
Monovithya is not the only person asking questions about where all this money is coming from. Australian lawmaker Julian Hill, who was born in Melbourne and represents the city’s Dandenong suburb, has pressed the issue. He has campaigned on behalf of the Khmer community that forms a large part of his constituency.
In September, RFA published an investigation linking Cambodian tax chief Kong Vibol and senior minister Pol Sarouen to two investment schemes shuttered by Australian regulators over serious irregularities and allegations of fraud.
In a parliamentary question in late November, Hill called upon the Australian government to investigate the schemes further. The investigation, he said, had raised concerns that the schemes “might have been misused as a vehicle for laundering illicit cash into Australia.”
He asked the government whether it had plans to direct its financial crimes agencies to investigate “the origin of the funds going into those schemes and the possibility that the schemes were being used for money laundering by Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt elite.”
Prospect of sanctions looms
Hill also sits on the Australian parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which on Dec. 7 issued a report calling for the adoption of legislation that can target human rights abusers with sanctions – similar to the Global Magnitsky Act in the U.S. and an equivalent law recently passed by the European Parliament.
Running to almost 200 pages, the report drew heavily on submissions from the Cambodian community, which spoke of death threats, intimidation and money laundering by individuals linked to the CPP.
A joint submission to the committee by the Cambodian Australian Federation and Cambodian Association of Melbourne claimed the CPP’s emissaries have “a long record of intimidating community members during visits to Australia.”
This culminated, the submission claims, during the 2018 visit of Hun Sen to Australia. In the run up to and aftermath of the premier’s visit, death threats were made against Cambodian Australian politicians, dissidents and Bou Rachana, who had been granted asylum in Australia 18 months after her husband, commentator Kem Ley, was gunned down taking his Sunday morning coffee in a Phnom Penh petrol station.
If the recommendations of the report are enacted into a Magnitsky-style law in Australia, there will be considerable pressure on the government to use it against officials involved in propping up Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime in Phnom Penh. Should that day come, many of Cambodia’s ruling families may regret using Australia as their private piggy bank.