Kem Sokha Slammed for 27 Years, Private Debt Nearly Doubles GDP, Strongman Solves a Peacock Problem
Good morning, Cambodia. It's Friday, March 3, and this is your Weekly Dispatch.
THE VERDICT: A Phnom Penh court handed down a contentious ruling today in the curious and long-standing case of Kem Sokha, the opposition leader accused of plotting to overthrow the government. It was all bad news for Kem Sokha — sentenced to 27 years of house arrest.
BOTH WAYS: The Strongman is at it again: playing Big Powers off each other to benefit the Kingdom. On one side, China is building roads, bridges and possibly a monster naval base in Ream. On the other, the U.S. is by far the biggest export partner, and bilateral trade was up 40% in 2022.
COLOR CODE: Cambodia is off the “grey” list for money laundering and terror financing for the first time since 2019, removing financial hurdles and making the Kingdom more attractive to investors. Now, what to do with the dodgy casino industry that got Cambodia listed in the first place?
Is the Kingdom addicted to debt?
Cambodia’s private debt topped 180% of GDP last year, up 20% from 2021. Bad loans surged from 2.1% in 2020 to nearly 4.5% in 2022. Standard & Poor’s predicts unpaid loans will double again this year.
Some unpaid debt can be blamed on Covid-19, but much is likely due to hyper-aggressive lending. The Kingdom is flush with fast money from a loan industry long accused of predatory practices.
The government has launched several financial literacy programs to tackle the problem. Critics call it window dressing. The bubble might be ready to burst.
Hun Sen abruptly ordered the return of 20 green peafowls seized in a wildlife trafficking sting, saying the owner should be commended for his work, not punished.
The Kingdom’s conservation efforts would benefit from more endangered animals in private hands, the Strongman said, adding that he was working on laws to make owning exotic animals legal.
Most netizens were also outraged by the Forest Administration’s undercover bust, which started when wildlife officials discovered the birds for sale online. Trafficking protected species carries a penalty up to five years in prison.
A deadly bird flu outbreak, meanwhile, never really left the nest.
The father of a girl who died last week from the virus was expected to make a full recovery, all 29 close contacts tested negative, and doctors found no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
Genetic sequencing identified the pathogen as a local variant, dispelling fears that a foreign strain had slipped across the border — or worse, a new strain had evolved.
The bad news: A doctor leading the sequencing said the virus carried mutations making it “better adapted” to humans, and the discovery "needs to be treated with the utmost concern."
A Phnom Penh court sentenced Kem Sokha to 27 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the government, charges widely viewed as politically motivated. He will serve the sentence under house arrest. The U.S. ambassador called the verdict a “miscarriage of justice.”
“Better than ever” is how Hun Sen described Cambodia’s relationship with the U.S. A senior diplomat credited the Kingdom’s firm stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the rapprochement. The U.S. is still Cambodia’s top export partner, by a wide margin, and trade was up nearly 40% last year.
The FATF, the money laundering and terror finance watchdog, removed Cambodia from its “grey list” and reduced its monitoring requirements. Regulators applauded the move, saying it would lure foreign investors. Cambodia had languished on the “grey list” since 2019, largely over lax oversight of the casino industry.
A Chinese-built pier under construction at Ream Naval Base will be capable of serving aircraft carriers, according to a private intelligence firm. The U.S. believes China is building a foreign military base, an accusation Beijing and Phnom Penh have strongly denied — despite growing evidence otherwise.
One of Kem Sokha’s long-time aides clapped back at Rong Chhun, the new Candlelight Party vice president, for suggesting the former CNRP boss lead the Candlelighters after his treason trial. Kem Sokha will never join the Candlelight Party, the advisor promised.
Carbon neutral, zero-emissions and smoke-free — the Kingdom’s embrace of socially conscious travel is appearing in once far-flung locales. A temple in Tboung Khmum installed solar-powered lighting and planted a million marigolds as part of efforts to become an environmentally sustainable destination. Kampot City will soon ban smoking in public areas.
Kung Fu Diplomacy
The Kingdom’s “iron-clad” friendship with China will take center stage in a martial arts curtain raiser for the opening of Southeast Asian Games. Experts of Cambodian bokator and Chinese kung fu will demonstrate their skills and face each other in the ring in a performance celebrating 65 years of bilateral relations. A date has not been announced.
BACKPAGES: From The Cambodia Daily Vault
Ministry Warns About Christian Proselytizing
February 28, 2003
In a pre-emptive maneuver against religious conflict, particularly between Christians and Buddhists, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has issued a wide-ranging directive prohibiting proselytizing and the dissemination of religious propaganda in public.
Inaction Over Monk’s Killing Worries Observers
February 28, 2003
On Feb 6, 47-year-old Sam Bunthoeun, the president of the country’s Buddhist Meditation Center of Odong, was gunned down in front of a house in the Wat Langka complex by two men on a motorcycle.
King Says All Borders Were Set Long Ago
February 28, 2003
King Norodom Sihanouk, recently outspoken on the issue of Cambodia’s borders, on Thursday objected strongly to the idea that there was any uncertainty about the matter and advocated a return to the borders delineated in the 1960s.
In Cambodia, a Battered Mekong Defies Doomsday Predictions
After years of environmental assault — from dam building, overfishing, and logging — stretches of the Mekong River, upon which millions of people depend, appear to be recovering. Heavy rains have helped, along with a crackdown on illegal fishing and other conservation efforts.
Hun Manet: Cambodia’s rising son
Three out of four Cambodians have never known life without Hun Sen.
Steel Sharpens Steel: Remembering Nate Thayer
Many have recalled the foreign correspondent’s interview with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Fewer have remembered his most significant and meaningful work.
Images: Public domain.
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