Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Chinese whispers link to an uncivil society

Chinese whispers link to an uncivil society

Chinese whispers link to an uncivil society

Bertil Lintner, Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia, Silkworm

Books 2002

No one writes about drug crime in Cambodia without recounting the infamous 'Teng

Boonma' incident. Furious that Royal Air Cambodge had asked him for more than $4,500

in excess baggage charges following a flight from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's

wealthiest man took one of his bodyguard's pistols and blew out the 737's front tire.

Bertil Lintner retells the incident in his opening paragraph of the Cambodia chapter

of Blood Brothers. It's a great story told many times since, but it is also illustrative

of the culture of impunity that surrounds many at the highest levels of Cambodian


Needless to say Boonma was not charged over the incident. He remains a man of influence

in Cambodia, despite being banned from the United States over his alleged links,

which he denies, to the drugs trade.

Critical to Boonma's importance, according to Lintner, are his China connections.

Almost all roads lead to China in Blood Brothers, a state that Lintner argues has

organized crime at its core.

"China is a state that feels it has to engage in criminal activities such as

drug running and the printing of counterfeit dollars to survive," Lintner writes.

"And China needs the underworld to help it steal industrial secrets from more

developed countries, and to influence the politics of what is becoming its main rival,

the United States," he continues. "China's Blood Brothers are part of the

new world disorder, and pose a more profound threat to global security and stability

than the bad old communists - Russian or Chinese - ever did.''

Blood Brothers traces the frighteningly well-connected and well-organized networks

of organized crime from Russia, to Japan, China and throughout Asia, Australia and

the United States and, through the 'Donorgate' scandal of the mid 1990s, all the

way to the Clinton White House.

The book's message is clear. Organized crime in Asia operates in partnership with

secret cliques within political circles across the world. And as another example

shows, it is not just Beijing that flirts with or openly courts organized crime interests.

In March 1996, Interpol traced fake US bills from Thailand to Cambodia. Along with

the Cambodian police they raided an office in Phnom Penh and chased a man from the

office to the North Korean embassy where he remained holed up for several days.

Finally a Mercedes with blacked-out windows emerged from the embassy and sped toward

the Vietnamese border. The authorities followed the car to the final border checkpoint

where a stalemate ensued.

"There it stayed for almost two days and its occupants 'ate, slept, shat and

pissed' in the car," Lintner writes. "Eventually a deal was made [but]

the counterfeiter had to be handed over to the police ... [He] turned out to be Yoshimi

Tanaka, a wanted member of the Japanese Red Army."

Police arrested Tanaka in possession of a North Korean diplomatic passport and $40,000

in fake $100 bills.

Despite the North Korean connection, and the mid-1990s presence of south Asian gun

runners with official connections equipping the region's rebel movements, ethnic

Chinese remain the biggest players in Cambodian organized crime, a fact that has

been noted in Beijing.

The Chinese government, Lintner writes on page 220, asked the Sino-Cambodian Boonma

to "control the smaller gangs and their unruly members" in October 2000.

The request came at a meeting held in Phnom Penh between Boonma and Guo Dongpo, the

director of Beijing's Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs.

The problem of concern to the Chinese authorities stemmed from the activities of

ethnic Chinese gangs, especially those from Taiwan. Chen Chi-li, Taiwan's 'Dry Duck'

and an honorary advisor to Cambodia's Senate President Chea Sim, was of particular


"Chen and his fellow gangsters had turned Cambodia into a clearing house for

Chinese migrants ... to go to the United States and other western countries,"

Lintner writes.

Not that Beijing was overly concerned with the communities of illegal Chinese immigrants

that sprang up in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia. Rather it was this: "[W]hatever

their destination the suspicion is strong that the Chinese authorities are actually

encouraging people to leave."

The Chinese diaspora remits money to the mainland and exercises influence abroad.

Ted Sioeng, an Indonesian-Chinese tobacco tycoon and business partner of Teng Boonma,

is one such example. Sioeng sat on the board of the Iowa Wesleyan College, the university

that awarded Teng Boonma an honorary doctorate in late 1997, then rescinded it a

few weeks later.

Sioeng also donated enough money to the Clinton campaign to rate a seat next to the

then US president at a Democratic Party function in the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton apparently

kept Sioeng's money but was forced to return $640,000 in campaign funds illegally

donated by Macau-based mobsters.

A US Senate inquiry on the subject concluded that Sioeng "worked or possibly

still works on behalf of the Chinese government".

For a small country like Cambodia, big crime exerts a disproportionate influence.

Lintner writes that following the 1993 election, "the country's fragile democratic

institutions were soon subverted by the wealth of drug kingpins and other crime lords".

If you have trawled the pages of Cambodia's press over the last decade, you've probably

read these stories before. In fact the strength of Lintner's book is not that it

uncovers startling new evidence; rather it connects the reported activities of mobsters

across much of the world in recent decades.

Blood Brothers is a disquieting portrait in which organized crime, with deep roots

into business and politics, forms a global network of power and profit, and a vast

'uncivil society'.


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