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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Politics with your marijuana, Sir?

Politics with your marijuana, Sir?

IT could have been an April Fool's joke. But the bizarre chain of events triggered

by the April 1 delivery of a couple of shipping containers to Sihanoukville port

was unrivaled by the imagination of any prankster.

The only thing anyone agreed upon, eventually, was that there was six tonnes of marijuana

in one of the containers. Who put it there was anyone's guess as Cambodia's finest

law enforcement officials and politicians turned on each other in an orgy of innuendo

and allegation.

In rapid-fire succession within 10 days, Funcinpec threatened to arrest a Hun Sen

aide, Hun Sen complained of a campaign to frame his relatives and friends on drug

charges, Funcinpec and CPP police officers faced each other in an armed stand-off,

Hun Sen volunteered $10,000 for anyone brave enough to arrest a Funcinpec military

policeman, and the co-Prime Ministers feuded over whether the Funcinpec Minister

of Interior should answer drug-dealing allegations. No-one seemed to get much closer

to the truth.

According to the Sihanoukville port director, Lou Kim Chhun (Funcinpec), it all began

with two containers dropped off at the port by a transport firm at about 8pm Apr


About noon the next day, the chief of the Phnom Penh municipal police anti-drug squad,

Heng Peo (CPP), telephoned to ask that the containers be seized. Peo and a couple

of other officials raced down to Sihanoukville in two hours - crashing one of their

cars on the way, according to Chhun - to have a look.

The shipping boxes were moved inside a warehouse - "We were afraid to leave

them out at night," said Chhun - and cracked open by Heng Peo and other officials.

They found a shipment of rubber destined for export to Sri Lanka, and, in one of

the containers, a huge cache of marijuana.

They also found documents identifying Mong Reththy Import Export Ltd - whose managing

director Mong Reththy is a special envoy of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (CPP) -

as the seller of the rubber.

Police arrested a local man, Kim Vinthara, apparently an employee of the transport

firm which delivered the containers. But by Apr 4 - when the containers were taken

to Phnom Penh on Heng Peo's orders- politics had reared its head.

The day before the containers arrived in the capital, Hun Sen gave a speech in Prey

Veng declaring that "one political party" was organizing a campaign to

attack his friends and relatives through a drug crackdown.

He suggested that officials of the party would attempt to search the cars of his

friends, relatives or aides. "Then they can throw drugs into the cars and they

will accuse them of drug-trafficking."

By Apr 5, Funcinpec officials in Phnom Penh were calling a press conference to dole

out the shipping documents bearing Mong Reththy's name. The next day, the Funcinpec

Secretary-of-State for Interior, Hor Sok, claimed that Reththy's arrest was imminent.

The same day, the director general of the National Police, Hok Lundy, a CPP stalwart,

disagreed. He issued a statement decrying the "unprofessional and misleading

information" released by Funcinpec officials for "political purposes".

Heng Peo - the CPP police officer who started all this - was by this time apparently

feeling a little uncomfortable. He said he had initially been proud of the drug bust,

which he said followed a year-long investigation, but was now less than happy with

the politicking over it.

On Apr 7, heavily-armed Funcinpec police turned up at Heng Peo's Phnom Penh office

to inquire whether they might have a look inside the containers. After a stand-off,

they were persuaded to leave with a promise that they could look at the marijuana


Funcinpec leader and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh complained Apr

8 about the delay, adding: "The company is clear - it is Mong Reththy's company.

The rubber [is] Mong Reththy's. The marijuana is in the container of Mong Reththy.

How long do we have to [wait to] be enlightened about this?"

On Apr 9, the containers and their contents were opened to the glare of journalists'

cameras and a joint team of police officers from both parties.

Ly Thuch, chief of Ranariddh's Cabinet, also turned up to witness the event as pallet

after pallet of rubber was unloaded from one container, revealing a stash of something

else hidden in the middle.

The contraband was carefully counted and weighed and the result declared: 6,055 slabs

of compressed, wrapped weed each weighing one kilogram. Heng Peo put a sample in

a small drug-testing kit and confirmed that it did in fact appear to be marijuana.

Later, the man arrested in Sihanoukville, Kim Vinthara, was produced in handcuffs

for reporters. He gave his name, address, age and occupation - an employee of the

Waterway Transport Company, he said - but was not allowed to answer questions.

Throughout all this, Mong Reththy was hotly denying any wrong-doing from his Phnom

Penh office, protected by a bevy of bodyguards provided by Hun Sen "a long time


"We can see the motivation in this [allegation] is political," he said

from his Phnom Penh office Apr 8. "All my life, my name has never been in the

newspapers like this. All my friends are very sorry about this."

Reththy said he sold 38 tonnes of rubber for $35,000 to a Phnom Penh man in March,

and had nothing to do with the subsequent shipping arrangements for the cargo.

The man identified himself as Yim Sara, representing a Sri Lankan firm called Continental

Import-Export Co, according to Reththy.

"This guy came to me and said that he wanted to promote Cambodian rubber to

Sri Lanka," said Reththy. "I didn't check on the Continental phone and

fax numbers. He brought money to us - that's why we sold to him.

"This guy said he had already chartered the ship. Usually we do all the documentation,

but he said he would do it. I didn't think it was necessary that we do it ... Now,

I think it's very important."

Reththy said Sara somehow obtained copies of an export license and Camcontrol inspection

certificate which had been issued to the Mong Reththy firm for a previous shipment

of rubber involving a Taiwanese company. Sara, Reththy alleged, had doctored the

documents to put in the name of Continental Import-Export.

Reththy said that if anyone wanted to arrest him, they needed a court warrant, warning

"If any political party uses their strength to breach my rights, I might also

use my own strength."

Reththy - whose company is most notable for building schools for Hun Sen - said he

had not discussed the matter with Hun Sen because the case had nothing to do with

the Second Prime Minister.

But he joked that he couldn't be arrested, because "the school construction

could not be finished".

As for Sara, Reththy said the man had given him a Phnom Penh contact address. But

the police had told him that Sara had disappeared and there was no record of Continental

Import-Export Co in Cambodia.

A Post visit to Sara's purported address gleaned little more information. An old

lady at the house said she was Sara's mother and that her son was a military policeman

and a CPP member. Asked where her son was, she said she hadn't seen him in three


CPP police officials Hok Lundy and Heng Peo supported Mong Reththy, saying that his

company was the sixth one to have its name fraudulently used by drug traders.

Heng Peo - who was by now repeating ad nauseam that Mong Reththy was not a suspect

- said he was seeking the arrest of 11 people. He identified one as Chao Sokhon,

a Sihanoukville military policeman who is believed to be affiliated to Funcinpec,

and said the others included police and military staff.

Hun Sen, meanwhile, was apparently not convinced that Sokhon would give himself up

easily. In an Apr 11 speech broadcast on national radio, the Prime Minister offered

a $10,000 reward for the arrest of Sokhon, and $5,000 each for the other 10 suspects.

For good measure, Hun Sen also rounded on the Funcinpec Minister of Interior, You

Hockry, and the head of the ministry's anti-drug department, General Po Lyda. He

called for Hockry to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity and both men to be

questioned over a drug seizure more than a year ago.

In that equally bizarre and unexplained case, a group of Funcinpec anti-drug police

from the ministry clashed with Heng Peo's municipal anti-drug police in a heroin

sting operation in February last year. Somewhere along the line at least 3kg of heroin

went missing.

Hun Sen urged Ranariddh to sign an order requesting Hockry's immunity be withdrawn,

a suggestion Ranariddh promptly rejected.

As for Mong Reththy, Hun Sen said anyone wanting to arrest him without a court warrant

better wear "steel on your head".

Back down in Sihanoukville, provincial governor Thoam Bun Sron (Funcinpec) said he

wasn't sure what was going on but professed that nothing would surprise him.

What was his verdict on who was behind the drug haul? "When there is corruption

almost everywhere, anything is possible," he said.



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