PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was criticized this week by an online news service for flaunting a collection of million-dollar watches in a display of vast personal wealth in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
One of these, a Patek Philippe watch distinguished by white gold engravings and a blue leather strap, is valued at $1.2 million, Vice World News said in a July 28 report, noting that the long-ruling prime minister's official salary is only about $2,500 a month.
"Hun Sen's love for multi-million dollar luxury watches is just obscene in a country where per capita GDP is just $1,500 a year," said Edinburgh Napier University lecturer Andrew MacGregor, quoted in Vice World News.
Reports criticizing Hun Sen's choice of watches is driven only by envy, said Cambodian government spokesman Sok Ey San, speaking to RFA's Khmer Service on July 29.
"The point here is that it was legally purchased. It was not trafficked or bought with 'black money," Sok Ey San said, referring to the watch highlighted in the Vice World News story.
"I have heard that he did not even buy his watch. It was a gift from a tycoon," the spokesman said, adding that tycoons can easily afford gifts valued at from one to two million dollars.
"I don't think it is too much," he said.
Expensive watches had also been presented to Hun Sen by foreign dignitaries during state visits, Sok Eysan said, while urging reporters not to write further stories focused on the issue.
A small, corrupt elite
Luxury watch scandals, often sparked by photographs of leaders wearing pricey timepieces that then set off internet sleuthing campaigns, have dogged politicians in China, Thailand, and Russia in recent years.
"As prime minister, Hun Sen has presided over a kleptocratic system of state looting that has involved the forced and violent eviction of Cambodians to free up land for tycoon-dominated industries like logging, mining, and agribusiness," the environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness said in a July 20, 2018 report.
The resulting impoverishment of ordinary Cambodians has "[made] a small, corrupt elite vastly wealthy," Global Witness said.
An ongoing investigative series by RFA examining the overseas real estate holdings of Cambodia's ruling elite has turned up properties worth $30 million. In 2016 alone, at least $1.8 billion was laundered out of Cambodia, according to an analysis by U.S. think tank Global Financial Integrity.
Cambodia ranked 162 out of 198 countries, close to the bottom, in Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Reported and translated by RFA's Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.
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(Photo credit: Mikhail Svetlo).