Allegations of Cypriot Citizenship Prompt PM Hun Sen to Amend Constitution

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a press conference at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on September 17, 2021, as the country begins vaccinating children aged between six and 12. (Photo: AFP)

The Guardian’s reporting alleged Prime Minister Hun Sen purchased Cypriot citizenship, leading to the beginning of constitutional change that would prevent dual-citizens from holding Cambodia’s highest offices

PHNOM PENH--Following allegations that he had purchased Cypriot citizenship, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Oct. 6 has, with the vocal support of his sons, called for a change to the Cambodian Constitution to restrict dual-citizens from holding the top four leadership positions within government.

“To show loyalty to the nation and avoid foreign interference, the national leaders who serve as the President of the Senate, the President of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister as well as the President of the Constitutional Council must have Khmer nationality,” Hun Sen wrote on his official Facebook page on October 6, 2021.

This comes after The Guardian published a story on Oct. 3 focused on leaked documents that have become known as the Pandora Papers which have exposed millions of financial assets hidden by some of the world’s most wealthy and powerful.

The Guardian alluded to a now-cancelled Cypriot citizenship scheme which allowed applicants to invest €2 million—roughly $2.3 million—in real estate, stocks, government bonds of businesses in Cyprus in exchange for a Cypriot passport. Such a passport would give its bearer the right to live and work in the European Union, but the Cypriot government cancelled the scheme in 2020 following criticism from the EU that it could enable money laundering and other organized crime.

“In addition to Russian oligarchs and Saudi potentates, the Cambodian leader, Hun Sen, was discovered to have been among the thousands of non-Europeans who received a Cypriot passport,” The Guardian reported.

On Oct. 5, former leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy took to social media from his exile in France to say “The purchase of foreign nationality and passports shows that Hun Sen knows that his regime is moving toward its end and that he and his family are preparing to flee Cambodia to seek safety abroad.”

Hun Sen’s actual wealth remains unknown, but his family and network of patronage are known to far exceed the requirements of the now-defunct passport purchase scheme. In October 2019, a special report by Reuters uncovered that numerous members of Hun Sen’s family and the political elite who sustain his rule had purchased Cypriot passports.

Hun Kimleng, Hun Sen’s niece, along with her husband Neth Savoeun—and two of their daughters—were found to have bought foreign citizenship. Lao Meng Khin and his wife Yeay Pu, owners of the Pheapimex empire and infamous for the Boeung Kak evictions, were also identified by Reuters as having invested in Cyprus’ so-called Golden Passport scheme.

Also listed was Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth and his wife, although it is unclear whether they received citizenship from Cyprus or merely applied.

However, the veracity of The Guardian’s reporting remains unclear and the newspaper’s spokespeople did not respond at press time.

But whether the allegations against Hun Sen are true or not, they appear to have spurred a legislative change to the Constitution that will ensure top positions in government are held by those only possessing Cambodian citizenship.

“If you dare to play, do not get mad, if you get mad, do not play,” Hun Sen added in his Facebook post. “The door is closed forever for those who possess two nationalities and are trying to hold these top positions, especially the position of Prime Minister.”

Widely regarded as a specific reference to Rainsy, who holds both Cambodian and French citizenship, Hun Sen’s message also precludes various Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders from holding top government roles. Many CNRP figures, having fled persecution following what has been widely regarded as the politically motivated dissolution of their party at the hands of the Supreme Court in 2017, have since taken on other citizenships to avoid arrest.

Cambodia’s Constitution adopted in 1993 following the first democratic election under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, has already undergone nine amendments. 

However, any amendment to the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to be able to pass, said Hun Sen, whose party won all 125 seats in the 2018 election following the dissolution of the CNRP.

While the support of the National Assembly is all but assured, Hun Sen’s sons didn’t miss the opportunity to vocalize support for their father with Hun Many claiming he hadn’t seen Hun Sen apply for foreign citizenship.

“He [Hun Sen] has a high regard for Cambodian political figures, regardless of party affiliation or tendency, who had been banished abroad for whatever reason to return and participate in the development of our nation despite their nationality,” Many wrote, adding that he supported the amendment to the Constitution.

“This point came from Khmer traitor, Rainsy, who has sold his brain to foreigners and accused the head of the Royal Government of buying a Cypriot citizenship,” Many said in audio sent to compatriots. “However, this accusation is an opportunity for us to amend the constitution and to emphasize that a leader must hold only one nationality, which is to ensure that the interests and protection are only for Cambodia and its citizens.”

Many, who is also a parliamentarian representing Kampong Speu Province, also said the public should show support for the amendment of the Constitution to “protect the national interests.”

Hun Manith, Hun Sen’s fourth child and Director General of the Ministry of Defense’s Intelligence Department, also voiced his support for his father’s constitutional reform.

Despite the proclaimed independence of the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement within hours of Hun Sen’s remarks saying they too supported the decision.

“As stated in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the leader must adhere to loyalty to the nation and the motherland of Cambodia, to lead the country, put national interests first, as well as resisting outside interference in the internal affairs of Cambodia's national leadership,” said the Ministry of Justice a statement.

Going slightly further, Justice Minister Keuth Rith on Oct. 6 sent a separate letter to his Cypriot counterpart Stephie Dracos requesting a cooperation to investigate the allegations.  

“As the highest political figure with highest respect and deepest love and gratitude from Cambodian people of all walks of life, the publication of exaggerative and false allegation against Prime Minister Hun Sen, seriously damaged honor and integrity of the Prime Minister as well as those of Cambodian people and the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Rith said in the letter.

The same day, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn also wrote to his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides to investigate whether Hun Sen had purchased foreign citizenship.

Additional reporting by Gerald Flynn

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