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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rags-to-riches tycoon eyes chamber

Rags-to-riches tycoon eyes chamber

A self-made millionaire and a corporate giant are neck-and-neck for the race to be

the president of the new Chamber of Commerce. Susan Postlewaite reports.

WITH elections a week away, the race for president of the state empowered Phnom Penh

Chamber of Commerce is said to have narrowed to a contest between two financial giants

and a handful of long shot candidates.

Knowledgeable sources say, in reality, the contest will be between two of Cambodia's

richest businessmen - tycoon Teng Boonma and Kong Triv, a rags-to-riches trader who

emerged penniless from the rice fields in 1979 to make a fortune.

Neither Teng Boonma nor Kong Triv was actively campaigning. Each of them has had

his business interests firmly established for years, with holdings in real estate,

factories, hotels and banks.

"Phnom Penh is a very small city. The businessmen know each other very well.

They can think by themselves," Kong Triv said in an interview in his offices

at his Cambodian Tobacco Co. Teng Boonma declined to be interviewed.

A handful of other candidates were still officially running for the job of president,

but as the Oct. 15 election day drew closer, most of the candidates said they were

just interested in running for one of the 24 member positions in the chamber, not

for the top post.

The 24 members will be elected by representatives of about 500 businesses that have

registered with the Ministry of Commerce to vote.

The 24 members will then choose the president. The job carries no salary, but a great

deal of influence as Cambodia's most visible businessman. The president will have

authority over the chamber's spending, but because the chamber will receive no government

funds, the president may be expected to be rich enough to give the chamber gifts.

"The richer candidate has more chances because the chamber has no resources.

He can pay," explained Jacques Lethiec, the French advisor from the La Rochelle

Chamber of Commerce who is helping the Phnom Penh chamber to organize. "If the

chamber had an official resource, such as a tax, it would not be dependent on member

gifts, and the whole thing would be different," he said.

Sok Kong, the chairman of Sokimex Cambodia Investment and an advisor to the chairman

of the National Assembly, said that he was still a candidate for the board, but he

wasn't running for president.

"People said I was running, but I cannot," Sok Kong said. He said he was

too busy with his companies, in particular Sokimex, the petroleum distributor that

is soon to take over the business of CKC, the government oil company.

Ted Ngoy, owner of the King Group, a real estate company, who has campaigned for

months for the job, said last week he was still running. He declined to speculate

on his chances, saying that "first we have to elect the 24 representatives."

Also still said to be interested were Srey Leang Chheang, general director of Chimex

Import-Export Co., and Chhun Hong.

Several Cambodian sources told the Post that Teng Boonma, the wealthy owner of the

Thai Boon Roong trading and property development company, who is widely said to be

Cambodia's richest man, is believed to have the upper hand.

One businessman who is running for chamber membership said "Teng Boonma is supposed

to win because he is the one who owns everything in Cambodia".

Another source said that Boonma, who holds Thai nationality, engendered ill will

among small businesspeople when his company became embroiled in a big battle with

vendors over stall fees at the new Olympic market a year and a half ago.

Vendors claimed Thai Boon Roong had tricked them by charging rents they couldn't

afford to pay. In the old market they had paid nothing. The new market wanted to

charge fees of $6,000 to $160,000 for a 15 year lease.

The vendors claimed they had been led to believe they wouldn't have to pay for the

stalls, and that their stalls were on land they had previously occupied.

Thai Boon Roong owns Cambodia Mekong Bank, property holdings and Rasmei Kampuchea,

one of Cambodia's largest newspapers.

Boonma told Reuters in a Sept. 24 interview that he currently is focusing on construction

projects and wants to build a new wider road from Phnom Penh to Pochentong Airport.

He said the government authorized him to study the project. He is also building the

Regency Square office and hotel building, which he said will be managed by Inter-Continental

Hotels & Resorts.

He also said he has a deal to build a plywood factory in Stung Treng province as

well as a cigarette factory in the south. He said he has plans to build houses and

offices in Sihanoukville.

Kong Triv is also said to be among Cambodia's five richest businessmen, although

he said he couldn't confirm that because he doesn't know how rich the others are.

He said in 1979 he had nothing, having spent the Pol Pot era working in the fields.

For the first few years, he and his wife made a living bartering small items - cakes

and bicycles - in Phnom Penh, and by 1983 when the riel was re-introduced as currency

they had accumulated enough savings to begin importing goods and trans-shiping them

to Vietnam.

"At that time the market needed everything," he said. He imported only

"small, small things - toothpaste, sugar, dresses, clothing, shoes."

By 1985, his trading business had made him "the biggest businessman in Cambodia".

At that time, the SoC regime offered him the job of managing the only legal border

crossing to Vietnam. "There was only this one door open to the world,"

he said. "All of the goods to Cambodia were imported through this door."

He stayed for four years till the Soviet Union began withdrawing aid from Vietnam.

The government then asked him to return to Phnom Penh to become the official business

representatative of Cambodia. He began trading with other countries.

"At that time Cambodia was like a baby they threw into the ocean and told to

swim. Cambodia had to learn to live and breath by itself," he said.

Along the way, he opened a corrugated steel factory, a construction company, the

Pacific Commercial Bank and the Oriental Hotel. Now he is also the trading representative

of Mercedes Benz and Mitsubishi Electronics, and owns a lot of land. As for his real

estate holdings, he said he couldn't estimate just how much he now owns. "My

wife bought a lot," he said.

His future plans include concentrating on agribusiness, on developing such commodities

as rubber and palm oil for export. He said one of the goals is to create jobs. He

said his tobacco company employs 1,000 people.

"Many businesses asked me to stand for president of the chamber of commerce,"

Kong Triv said. He said he hoped to use his ties with many small businessmen to "do

business in a good way, to influence the policies of the government."

"If we depend on business inside the country, we cannot reconstruct the country

because local businessmen lack the capital."

He said he envisions the Chamber of Commerce as becoming the first stop for foreign

investors interested in Cambodia. The Cambodian Investment Board would be the second

stop.

He declined to speculate as to whether he can defeat Boonma. "He has a lot of

money... it's up to the people to choose."

Neither Kong Triv nor Teng Boonma speaks English. Ted Ngoy, who spent 17 years in

the United States, speaks English fluently. Knowledgeable sources called Ngoy a long

shot because he returned to Cambodia only two years ago, and he isn't rich enough,

although he lists his wealth at $3.5 million. "Ted Ngoy has money, but not enough,"

said one source.

Ngoy said that the new chamber's priorities for Cambodia should be to draw up a plan

of short and medium term goals and submit a comprehensive business plan to the Government

for submission to the National Assembly. He said the chamber should also set up a

publications office, should offer vocational training to help businesses, and should

set up a mechanism to help small businesspeople negotiate for business loans.

He said the chamber should also be charged with sending delegations to foreign countries

for training and scholarship.

The chamber will represent only Phnom Penh businesses, but since it will be the first

chamber in the country, and since many of the businessmen who are seeking to be members

have extensive interests throughout the country and in a variety of businesses from

industry to services to trade, in effect the chamber will be a nationwide organization.

The chamber is modeled after the French or Continental European system, which means

it will have certain public duties such as advising the government on business policy

and working with companies inside and outside Cambodia to promote enterprise. It

will be first time Cambodia has had a chamber since 1975.

The members will be elected in four categories - industry, trade, services and agriculture.

As of Oct 2, 13 candidates had registered for eight industry slots; 18 candidates

had registered for eight trade seats; eight candidates had registered for four slots

in services; and only two candidates had registered for four agriculture slots.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said that the chamber will have a "soft opening"

one month after the elections and will be fully operational Feb 1, 1996. Training

assistance for the staff will be provided by the European Union, with advisor Jacques

Lethiec.

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