Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cambodia’s Hun Sen Has a Secret Plan

By James Hookway

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives before a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh - Reuters

Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen says he has a “secret strategy” to prevent his Southeast Asian nation from being dominated by its much larger neighbors: casinos.

In a five-hour, 20 minute address to Cambodia’s parliament Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen explained that his plans to turn this country of 15 million people into a global gaming hub is in fact part of a longer-term strategy to prevent neighbors such as Vietnam and Thailand from encroaching on Cambodian turf.

Border disputes are a recurring problem in the region, with Thai and Cambodian troops occasionally locking horns in Cambodia’s east. A contentious border demarcation process with Vietnam is still under way, and Mr. Hun Sen’s opponents have accused him of giving away territory to regional rivals, especially Vietnam, in the past. But on Thursday he took them to task.

“I don’t like casinos, but the biggest goal for giving permission to build casinos is to protect the border,” Mr. Hun Sen, 61 years old, told lawmakers in a marathon address, which was estimated by aides to be his longest yet. The predominantly Buddhist country now has more than 25 casinos, with more gaming tables on the way. “One can remove border markers, but one can’t remove five-storey hotels. Don’t be stupid.”

Worse, Mr. Hun Sen said, his critics had forced him to reveal his clandestine security plan. “This should be a secret strategy to protect the nation,” Asia’s longest-serving leader barked in his televised speech, which was mandatory viewing for civil servants, who watched their leader speak without breaks or taking questions.

It’s unclear how firmly Mr. Hun Sen’s tongue was planted in his cheek. His long and often rambling speeches frequently invite comparison with other long-winded leaders, such as Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and he often upbraids erring ministers on live television.

Earlier this year, he also lashed out at foreign correspondents for daring to suggest that Cambodia might use its role as host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year to prevent the trade and security-bloc from taking a common stand against one of Cambodia’s main allies, China.

“I think he was being facetious” when unveiling his secret casino plan, said Ben Lee, an analyst with Macau-based consultancy iGamix.

It wasn’t immediately possible to reach a Cambodian government spokesman, and Vietnamese government officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Cheam Yeap, a member of Mr. Hun Sen’s party in the legislature, said the casino plan “is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own strategy to protect the border. The prime minister is serious with his speech.”

There has been an extraordinary surge in new casinos opening their doors for business in Cambodia in recent years. Its government is attempting to attract a slice of the gaming money that has made Asia a new global center for the industry, and Cambodia’s borders are lined with casinos catering to Thai and Vietnamese gamblers who are prohibited from gambling in their own countries.

Opponents regularly criticize Mr. Hun Sen for promoting casinos for visitors. Many Cambodians, who are legally barred from gambling, see the joints as morally degrading.

Yet the industry has also created thousands of jobs in a country that is still striving to overcome of the chaos of the 1970s, when the former Maoist Khmer Rouge regime killed or contributed to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. The country’s casinos range from hard-scrabble affairs in border outposts to palatial buildings in Phnom Penh, such as the riverside NagaWorld resort, which is adding 220 rooms to its existing 500.

The government says gaming generated around $20 million in tax revenues last year, up 25% from the year before, and which is re-invested in health care and education.

Authorities are now eyeing more casino developments in other tourist areas, including the towns of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as Cambodia hopes to follow in the path of other gaming centers such as Macau, which last year pulled in $33.5 billion in gaming revenue, more than the five times the amount raked in in Las Vegas.

It is unclear how successful Cambodia will be in capturing a larger slice of this market, though squeamishness over the suitability of gaming in a predominantly Buddhist society doesn’t appear to be getting in the way of the country’s longer-term commercial and, possibly, national security goals.

Correction & Amplification:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Cambodia is a land-locked nation.

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