Cambodia’s top investor scoffs at rumors about a shady past

1250 words
12 March 1996
Asia Times
(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd

Teng Boonma does things big. He is Cambodia’s biggest investor and its biggest taxpayer. Some also believe he is Cambodia’s biggest drug dealer.

In agitation, Boonma waved a hand adorned with what must certainly be Cambodia’s biggest sapphire. "They say I smuggle drugs. It is completely untrue," he said. He freely confessed to the first two charges, saying he paid more than US$2 million a month in taxes to the Cambodian government.

His is a classic rags-to-riches story that started with a bus driver’s assistant working in his native Kompong Cham province and went international when the Khmer Rouge rice-communists took over the country and he crossed the border to Thailand.

The base of the big-bucks pyramid was built on Thai real estate deals in the booming markets of the mid 1980s. "The price rose very high and I can say that I made good profits." How good? "I would not like to disclose that exactly because as you know, Thai authorities have very strict rules on tax collection," Boonma said with a coy grin.

Although his company, Thai Boon Roong Group, is registered in Thailand, he now does most of his trading business elsewhere. "The climate in Thailand is not right. There are too many restrictions; trade is not free enough."

Thai Boon Roong trades all manner of things, but cigarettes have been the mainstay of the business. With an eye on Vietnam’s 76 million people, Boonma has Jet brand cigarettes manufactured in Indonesia. He then imports them to Cambodia and sells them to local dealers.

Why the rather circuitous route?

"You must understand, Vietnam doesn’t allow cigarette imports, so it is easier to smuggle them across the border. I pay my taxes to the Cambodian government and sell to local traders and they do the rest. There are thousands of families making a living off this trade," he said. For him, it represents an income of US$2 million a month.

Vietnamese authorities are apparently not too upset by the trade: They have licensed Thai Boon Roong to build a cigarette factory near the southern port of Vung Tau. The factory, already under construction, will pump out a million cartons of cigarettes a month, just a quarter of Jet’s total market in the country. The rest will still come through Cambodia.

Trading aside, Boonma did not start to invest in his native country until the early 1990s, when internationally-sponsored peace talks looked like they might finally put a full stop at the end of the turmoil and war to which Cambodians had been sentenced for decades.

The ethnic Chinese tycoon sold a 23-story building in Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay district for US$145 million ("US$20 million less than if I had waited another year," he said dismissively) and sunk the bulk of the money into the ravaged Cambodian economy. "I understood that there would be peace and stability here," he said. "But my friends laughed at me, telling me that I had sold a villa to buy a palm-thatched hut."

Four years later, a US$65 million hotel and office complex is rising from a Phnom Penh boulevard and a riverfront site is waiting for the US$40 million that will turn the lot into serviced apartments.

In the coastal town of Kompong Som, 90 hectares of land have been marked out for the Thai Boon Roong Group; a third of that will be developed this year. A cement plant in Kampot province will swallow another US$60 million before it begins operation in 1998.

This partial list of plum projects has left some feeling slightly dizzy. "Frankly, I think the chairman is investing too much in this country," said one of Boonma’s 10 children, an executive at one of the group’s subsidiaries. "It is mostly for sentimental reasons, because he wants to see peace and development in the country of his birth."

Boonma’s desire to see an end to Cambodia’s seemingly perpetual grind of bloodshed prompted him to dig into his pockets and underwrite the peace process. He is hazy about exactly how much he paid to whom, but does remember spending US$30,000 to allow all four of the country’s factions to attend Paris peace talks.

The factions have now rearranged themselves, and the isolated Khmer Rouge has once again taken up the gun. Boonma said he recently gave the government US$100,000 to help pay for the annual dry season offensive against the guerrillas.

Such donations – the list is reported to include a private jet for Prime Minister Norodom Ranarridh and a limousine for his co-Premier Hun Sen – have lifted the sluice gates on a stream of allegations of bribery and favor-buying.

"When I was finance minister, he came to me and said ‘What can I do to please you?’" said Sam Rainsey, a politician highly critical of the government from which he has been expelled.

Boonma himself is infuriated by such talk. "I have never used that kind of (corrupt) attitude to obtain a contract from the government. Never. I would like to know which politician can say he has received money from me." The 54-year-old said donations he made for schools or roads must be fully accounted for by those accepting the money.

"What he does is exactly the same as lobbyists in Washington or at the European Union. You show me the difference," said his son.

Washington is a sore subject just now. Some months after Rainsey alleged that the United States had evidence Boonma was involved in drug smuggling, Cambodia has been warned by the US that it risks losing aid unless it takes a hatchet to the traffic in heroin through the country.

Boonma has never been publicly named by the US, and even Rainsey can come up with nothing more than logical supposition to link him to the trade. "We know he is involved in smuggling. Why would he hesitate to smuggle the single most profitable item?" he asked.

Rainsey, who now heads a banned opposition party, alleges that Boonma is protected by the country’s top leaders because the heroin trade lines important pockets. "He is a very powerful man, and he can’t be used as a scapegoat. He would make the government see this: ‘If you let me down, I will let everything be known.’"

The businessman flew into a diatribe at these allegations. "He talks such rubbish, I don’t even know how to answer," Boonma said. "But he is out on a limb. I ask that next time he looks before he leaps."

Cambodians do not take such talk lightly – no one wants to make an enemy of someone well-connected. When Teng Boonma’s name comes up in conversation people frequently recall that in 1994, an editor was shot dead in the street just days after his paper published a long and somewhat lurid biography of the businessman.

Boonma said he was tired of worrying about his critics and would like to be left to concentrate on business. Chairman of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, he is keen to attract more investment in infrastructure to the country and is currently discussing dry port and shipbuilding investments with Taiwanese companies.

Copyright 1996 Asia Times.

(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd.

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