By The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network
A trove of documents left behind by law enforcement officials at a recently shuttered cockfighting ring allegedly owned by the nephew-in-law of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to show organised payments to police and government officials across Kandal province.
The documents – trampled into the mud behind the shuttered arena along with scraps of scorecards, tickets, invoices for Budweiser and fake $100 bills – paint a picture of an illegal gambling operation allegedly run by Thai Phany that appeared to exist with the widespread knowledge of local authorities.
Among the documents discovered by Post reporters over the weekend are a Wing note recording $200 transferred to the district police chief; a list of monthly “salary payments” to 40 locals, including the village chief and commune chief; a letter from the commune police chief asking Phany for $600 “to fix the roof”; and a handwritten notebook recording payments to “Bong Mab”, a possible reference to Phany’s nickname “Thy Mab”, “TV media”, “inspectors”, “police” and “village security”.
The documents raise questions as to whether the investigation into Phany, a Ministry of Defence bureaucrat who is married to the prime minister’s niece, should be expanded to other government officials. Phany was charged on December 5 for allegedly operating two cockfighting rings, after a leaked WhatsApp message appeared to show the premier authorising authorities to shoot him if he resisted arrest.
Independent observers said the documents showing widespread bribery should prompt an independent investigation into the illegal cockfighting rings in Kandal and Takeo provinces that were shut down earlier this month.
San Chey, country director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP), called on the Anti-Corruption Unit to open an investigation.
“There is no need to wait,” Chey said. “I feel very, very disappointed that such a story is happening. That’s why action needs to be taken. If government officials say they are clean, they must commit to fighting corruption as well.”
In plain sight
Locals say the cockfighting ring was operating in Akrei Khsat commune’s Khsach village for roughly a year before a squadron of police, Military Police and soldiers raided the complex earlier this month, bulldozing the arena to the ground and detaining 200 people for questioning.
Phany, the ring’s alleged owner, is the son-in-law of the prime minister’s older brother, Hun San, and a Cambodian-Australian citizen who has a chequered past in both countries.
In 2003, he was caught smuggling more than 300 grams of heroin from Cambodia to Australia and sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
Australian court documents describe Phany as having “strong connections with powerful people in Cambodia” and allege that at one point he paid for an appointment to be a major in the Cambodian army.
In 2010, Phany was arrested in Phnom Penh under the name Thai Sith carrying nearly 500 grams of meth and a gun. His 10-year sentence was eventually commuted by the King in 2015.
Since then, Phany has been working as an official in the Ministry of Defence and leading a ruling Cambodian People’s Party working group in Siem Reap.
But locals in both Takeo’s Bati district and Kandal’s Lvea Em district said he has also been running cockfighting rings in the area, some of which last for just weeks while others have lasted more than a year, like the one in Kandal.
The ring, down a paved road where children fly kites after school, drew wealthy out-of-towners several times a week who parked their luxury cars underneath villagers’ homes and supported a cottage industry of street vendors selling food and drink to the gamblers, locals said.
Phany’s lawyer, Lin Lanin, refused to answer personal questions about her client on Tuesday. When asked about court proceedings, Lanin said only that she “will request to release him on bail at the appropriate time”.
An Australian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson would not specifically address Phany’s case, saying only that the agency “is providing consular assistance to a dual national Cambodian/Australian man detained in Cambodia”.
“Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment,” they said.
The paper trail
The documents left behind at the Lvea Em cockfighting ring raise serious questions about to what extent local officials knew – and were possibly involved in – the illegal gambling operation.
Of the nine authorities who signed and posted a letter informing the cockfighting ring of its closure, three appear by name in documents recovered by The Post at the scene.
Those include Lvea Em District Police Chief Heng Sophal, who received $200 via Wing, according to a receipt marked with his cell phone number and the word “district” written in pen. The date of the transfer was not visible.
Sophal, when contacted this week, denied having taken money from the managers of the cockfighting ring. When pressed further, he simply laughed.
Ly Chun Ou, a Military Police official whose name and mobile phone number appear on two documents, including one titled “bird sporting champions of 2017”, also claimed to have no knowledge of the cockfighting ring, although he could not explain why he appears in the documents.
Commune Police Chief An Penh, whose signature appears on a letter asking Phany and his wife for $600 to fix the police station roof due to damage, leaks and having “no place to rest”, also denied involvement in the ring.
When asked about the letter, dated October 8, Penh confirmed the document was authentic but said there was nothing improper about a police official asking the owner of an illegal cockfighting ring for money. Penh added that Phany eventually donated the material for the roof but not the money.
Other government officials, like police officials, also denied they had received bribes but hinted at the ring’s powerful connections.
Doch Chan, the Akrei Khsat commune chief who is named as the recipient of a $100 “monthly salary” on a document found at the complex, denied receiving any money from the cockfighting ring. “My capability is unable to shut it down, so I reported it to the provincial police chief from the beginning,” Chan said. “We had no ability to crack down on it because the ring was powerful.”
Village Chief Sao Sava, who is listed as having also received a $100 monthly salary on the same document, also denied taking money.
“We are small,” Sava said. “We cannot do anything without Prime Minister Hun Sen. He [Phany] is a three-star general.”
The list also appears to name nearly 40 locals who were also receiving monthly payments from the cockfighting ring. One villager who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that she and her parents received between $100 to $150 per month from the cockfighting ring.
Also abandoned at the compound was a handwritten notebook that appears to record expenses at the ring between March and September – showing several thousand dollars per week being paid to people nicknamed “Bong Mab”, “Older Brother” and “Older Sister”, as well as entries like “police” ($20), “inspection by authorities” ($250) and “Bayon TV” ($250).
In addition, investigators also left behind a typed document appearing to detail the monthly budget for the cockfighting ring in Takeo – including $10,700 in “provincial spending”.
Among the listed line items are $2,500 to be paid to the provincial court prosecutor and $1,000 to the head of the Military Police.
A picture of the document was widely circulated on social media shortly after the Takeo cockfighting ring bust, raising questions about why it was also found in Kandal.
Journalists and more
Also among the papers were dozens of Wing notes showing payments to local TV and print journalists, usually in $25 or $50 increments.
Kandal Provincial Police Chief Eav Chamroeun emphasised this angle in his public announcements about the case after the ring was shut down, posting photos on his Facebook page of press passes found at the scene. He made no mention of finding any documents implicating government or police officials. Chamroeun could not be reached yesterday.
Most of the local journalists contacted by The Post denied taking money from the cockfighting ring in exchange for turning a blind eye.
But Ieng Yuhak, editor of online news outlet Kapea Promden, acknowledged he had accepted $25 once, describing it alternately as “for gasoline”, “to show compassion and kindness” and “because they were illegal, therefore they gave us the money”.
“We are journalists,” Yuhak said. “We do not have the right to close the cockfighting ring. We’re not judicial authorities.”
“They [the authorities] also took money like us,” he added. “The authorities want to damage our reputation. Without journalists reporting about it, there would have been no crackdown.”
When asked whether the court would expand the investigation, Kandal court spokesman So Sarin said he did not know. “This is the investigating judge’s work,” Sarin said.
However, corruption experts said the discovery exposes a conflict of interest on the part of investigators. “Such an open illegal gambling cannot be operated without collusion of different local authorities and their superiors,” Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia said in an email. “And of course, corruption facilitates such an arrangement.”
Kol called on the government to appoint an independent body to take over the investigation staffed by the Anti-Corruption Unit. “It is impossible to have an objective and independent investigation conducted by the implicated authorities or their close allies within the same network,” he said.
Anti-Corruption Unit Director Om Yentieng refused to comment on the case when contacted on Tuesday. “There’s nothing new,” Yentieng said. “This is old rice.”