Cambodia’s foreign officials remained on the defensive yesterday in the face of allegations in a Fairfax Media report that diplomats in Australia abused their alcohol and tobacco diplomatic concessions, while analysts said the government will need to act if more diplomatic faux pas emerge.
Cambodian Ambassador to Australia Koy Kuong told Khmer language media that the matter involving the Cambodian embassy’s provider – Unique International Duty Free in Melbourne – was investigated by the Australian Border Force and resolved in late 2015, but was not linked to his embassy.
Kuong, who on Tuesday told the Post the embassy “had done nothing wrong,” hung up on reporters seeking clarification about the new revelations.
According to media reports, individual diplomats are entitled to import 120 litres of spirits, 500 litres of alcohol and 10,000 cigarettes tax-free every six months for their personal use (and double that for the embassy itself).
But Australia’s high tax threshold on those items means illegally selling them on could turn a hefty profit at the expense of Australian tax-payers – an amount estimated at A$200,000 (about US$147,000).
Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry, who served as ambassador to Australia before Kuong took over the reins in June last year, rebuffed the suggestion he might also be investigated for the alleged tax fraud.
“You want to ask me if I am under investigation? You need to wait for the official response from the embassy,” he said.
Duty free, 50 cigarettes would cost about US$11, but at retail, they could cost up to US$44; a litre of vodka priced at US$42 in a local store would only cost US$22 duty-free.
Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said he was not surprised “rogue diplomats could be tempted” by “making double in profit”, but stressed that it was likely only one or two embassy officials were embroiled in the scheme, not the entire embassy.
“The ambassador is expected to be in control of his embassy. But he can’t root out all the corruption, he can only react when it happens,” Thayer said.
However, he said, if a third or fourth diplomat caused foreign headaches for the government – coming after South Korea envoy Suth Dina’s expulsion on corruption charges and this latest case – the government would need to act swiftly to save face internationally.