Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Narcotics trafficking debate takes center stage

Narcotics trafficking debate takes center stage

Narcotics trafficking debate takes center stage

C AMBODIAN government officials are cooperating with American officials in efforts

to clamp down on drugs trafficking in the Kingdom, and American Drug Enforcement

Agency (DEA) officials meet regularly with Cambodian counterparts to work on the

problem, according to U.S. Embassy official.

"In a sense the cooperation has been very good. They've asked for cooperation

and we've responded," said the U.S. official who declined to be named.

"DEA agents now visit Cambodia regularly to conduct training and to meet with

counterparts," the source said, who went on to describe how the U.S. government

had provided $325,000 in funds to set up a drug analysis laboratory and other equipment.

The comments came in response to queries about a cover story in the most recent edition

of the Far Eastern Economic Review which says that Cambodia has become a major drugs

trafficking center since the departure of the United Nations in 1993.

The series of articles entitled "Cambodia: Asia's New Narco-State?" describe

an intricate network of relationships between powerful businessmen, government military

and security forces and senior government leaders.

"Western governments, international law-enforcement officials and Cambodian

sources say businessmen engaged in criminal activities have amassed immense power

in Cambodia in the two-and-a-half years since United Nations-run elections. Protected

by senior government officials, they've turned Cambodia into a major center for drug

trafficking, money laundering and smuggling," says the Review, which hit news

stands on Nov 16.

The Review article cited an American official who said criminal syndicates "are

using government planes, helicopters, military trucks, navy boats and soldiers to

transport heroin."

Asked to comment on the story, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said on Nov 16 that he did

not know who the official quoted in the Review story was.

The embassy declined further comment saying that the U.S. official position on drug

trafficking in Cambodia was contained in the State Department's "International

Narcotics Control Strategy Report".

The embassy spokesman said: "We feel that this [Review] article is about Cambodia.

It's not Cambodians not Americans."

The report, which was released in March, 1995, said, "involvement of some leading

businessmen with access to the highest levels of government is a know concern. We

are not aware of any prosecutions for narcotics-related corruption. There are indications

that some high-level military officials and powerful businessmen who give financial

support to politicians are involved in heroin smuggling."

However, the Review article, citing former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, said that

U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining told Rainsy in February, 1994 that the U.S. government

had information that Cambodia's most prominent businessman and recently elected chairman

of the Chamber of Commerce, Theng Bunma, was involved in the narcotics trade.

"Please tell Ranariddh not to get involved with Theng Bunma because we Americans

have evidence that Theng Bunma is involved in drugs trafficking," Rainsy is

quoted by the Review as having been told by Twining during a private meeting at the

ambassador's residence.

The U.S. embassy would not comment on the discussion saying that meetings with government

officials were a private matter.

Ministry of Information spokesman Sieng Lapresse said he had read the Review article

and had called Ambassador Twining. Lapresse said: "[Twining] said that he met

with Rainsy many times and talked about many things. He did not remember saying or

not saying... He said that the word 'evidence' was serious. If it were him he did

not dare use it."

Lapresse added that the report was new to the government but that they would investigate

it.

The issue is further complicated because the U.S. embassy granted Theng Bunma a visa

to visit the United States in April of this year. Bunma, according to the Review,

was part of an official delegation led by National Assembly chairman Chea Sim, which

visited Washington, DC. The delegation met with senior American government leaders,

although Bunma did not attend the meetings.

The U.S. embassy, while confirming the visa, gave a "no comment" on the

reasons why Bunma was allowed to travel to the U.S., saying, "We don't discuss

deliberations by which we made the decision."

Theng Bunma, for his part, has denied all allegations that he is involved in drug

trafficking. Bunma told the Post on Nov 16: "The writer has no evidence, he

just wrote like that [without proof]."

When asked if he had ever been asked to smuggle drugs, Bunma said, "I don't

have any connection with drug traffickers."

The Review article says that in light of the drug trafficking situation in Cambodia,

"American officials say it's only a matter of weeks before Cambodia is placed

on the Major Narcotics Country list. Once that happens, U.S. law will require that

Phnom Penh demonstrate that it has 'taken legal and law-enforcement measures to prevent

and punish public corruption especially by senior government officials - that facilitates

the production, processing or shipment of narcotic drugs, or that discourages investigation

or prosecution of such acts."

The U.S. embassy said that it had no information on the issue. "If there is

such a move we haven't been apprised of it," an embassy spokesman told the Post

on Nov 16.

The spokesman went on to say that even if Cambodia was put on the Major Narcotics

Country list that there might be overriding considerations which would result in

Cambodia getting a "national interest waiver". The official referred to

Thailand as an example of a country where some citizens were known drug traffickers

but, because the Thai government was "making good efforts" to control the

drug trade, it had not been officially sanctioned by the U.S.

For countries which are put on the "narcotics list" and which do not receive

waivers, the U.S. is obliged to consider stopping all foreign assistance including

voting against multilateral aid via the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and

the Asian Development Bank.

Current direct U.S. aid to Cambodia amounts to about $50 million for fiscal year

1995. Multilateral aid is significantly larger and provides the bulk of the financial

resources currently used to cover 44 percent of the Kingdom's $410 million annual

budget.

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