Teng Boonma is often reported to be Cambodia's richest and most politically-influential
businessman. He spoke to Jason Barber and Christine Chaumeau about
his past, his business and his "gifts" to the government.
TENG Boonma is angry. He's fed up at the constant attacks on him in the Khmer press,
of being labeled a drug trafficker and a mafia kingpin, and he wants the government
to do something about it.
"These newspapers are no good. They destroy my reputation," declares Cambodia's
most controversial businessman.
He wants the rogue editors to come and have a chat to him, and have their newspapers
closed if they don't change their ways, but notes that it is difficult to track down
their whereabouts. "If I was really mafia, these people could not get away from
me," he exclaims.
For the man who says he started out as a simple farmer-turned-rice trader, the name
of Teng Boonma has become a legend of almost mythical proportions in the Cambodian
business and political worlds.
Anti-government newspapers regularly lash him with vitriol. Political dissident Sam
Rainsy has publicly alleged that if he is ever murdered, Boonma will have had something
to do with it. A controversial Far Eastern Economic Review "Me-dellin on the
Mekong" cover story labeled Boonma the "sugar daddy" of Cambodia's
He has been accused of being a drug dealer, a gold smuggler (he admits being fined
by Customs, but says it was all a mistake), a sponsor of political thuggery, not
to mention a man who refuses to eat anything not personally prepared by his wife.
His name, according to Post sources in the United States, is on a US government list
of suspected foreign drug traffickers.
But to be fair to the man, not a single scrap of hard evidence linking him to the
drug trade has been made public, except an alleged private allegation by former US
Ambassador to Cambodia Charles Twining - which Boonma says Twining denied making.
Politically, Boonma's contributions to Cambodia's leaders display a deftness at covering
his future bets. He bears a Cambodian diplomatic passport, courtesy of his position
as an adviser to National Assembly chairman and CPP president Chea Sim. His company
has made donations to Hun Sen, who rides around in a bullet-proof limousine he got
from Boonma. When Prince Norodom Ranariddh complained of a lack of transport, Boonma
gave him a plane.
As far as he's concerned, Teng Boonma is just a property and construction magnate.
His world is one of cement, of owning more property in Asian countries than he knows
what to do with, and of "building big."
Of Sino-Khmer heritage, his business history has spanned Cambodia, Hong Kong, Thailand,
Vietnam and China. In Cambodia, the interests of his Thai Boon Roong company include
the new Regent Park hotel-office complex, the Cambodia Mekong Bank, a Stung Treng
plywood factory, the Rasmei Kampuchea daily newspaper, and distribution rights for
Jet cigarettes. He's considering building a four-lane link road between Pochentong
Airport and Phnom Penh railway station.
In October, he took on a new air of respectability and became the public face of
Cambodian business when he was elected president of the new Cambodian Chamber of
To the newcomer, he appears every bit the part of a top Asian businessman: forthright,
excitable and confident, with a touch of ego and a dash of flamboyance.
Slapping a new checkbook down on a desk, he stabs a finger at it and declares he
has got a cool $100 million in the Hong Kong checking account. But, as though that's
not enough, he says his finances stretch to business deals worth five or six times
more than that.
Surrounded by ever-present bodyguards - some wearing police or military police uniforms,
complete with automatic rifles and grenade launchers, and others the anonymous dark
safari suit - he drives a Lincoln car imported from the United States. He sports
a jewel-studded gold Rolex watch and wide-rimmed tinted eyeglasses.
But his offices, on the second floor of the new Olympic Market building, are less
lavish than one might expect. His personal office is spacious but spartan: a plain,
modern black desk, a sofa and a couple of armchairs; the walls are white, and bare.
His staff work in basic offices with cheap furniture..
His choice of work site, in what he presumably expected to be a bustling market-place,
may reflect his trader beginnings. But Olympic Market - dogged by controversy when
market-holders were evicted from the old Olympic Market and asked to pay thousands
of dollars to move to the new, plain white building put up by Boonma - is certainly
Most of the neat rows of numbered stalls on the ground floor are unoccupied. The
only signs of life on the second floor are the Chamber of Commerce headquarters at
one end, Thai Boon Roong's offices at the other, and a cafe for their staff. In between
are empty, unfurnished offices.
Whatever that says about his business acumen - and clearly Boonma considers Cambodia's
economic progress is slower than he desires - you can't help but wonder what Cambodia's
reportedly richest businessmen feels as he walks through his near-deserted building
to go to work each day.
Aged 55, married with seven children - three in Cambodia, two studying in the United
States, one in Thailand and another in Hong Kong - Boonma says he has only a Cambodian
passport but has "special rights" to live in Thailand, Hong Kong and China.
His passport, he volunteers, bears the name Teng Boonma - no other.
Boonma recently gave the Post nearly two hours of his time, answering questions about
his history, his business interests and the rumors that hound him.
He spoke in forthright, hurried tones, while sipping tea, pacing around his office
and scanning faxed business documents brought to him by his aides. Frequently waving
his hands and stabbing his fingers in the air, he angrily denied being anything other
than a legitimate businessman.
Brushing aside an easy opening question about his personal background, he spared
the niceties and got down to what he knew full well the Post wanted to talk about.
Thumping his fist on copies of two anti-government newspapers on his office desk,
he exclaimed: "They say they know what my history is. They say I am mafia and
I am a bad man."
Extracts from the interview:
On being attacked by Khmer newspapers
These newspapers are no good. They destroy my reputation and they accuse me of
being a bad man. They accuse me of being a drug trafficker. They accuse me of setting
up a mafia group. But why do they not disclose proof or evidence?
I do not understand why these newspapers write bad things. I have sent many letters
to the government asking that the newspaper editors come to meet me to discuss this.
But we don't know the whereabouts of these newspapers. I wrote to [Min-isters of
Information] Ieng Mouly and Khieu Kanarith. Personally I blame the Ministry of Information
for allowing these newspapers to operate. In fact, I don't want these newspapers
to be closed. I want the editors of these newspapers to provide evidence or write
the truth. If I was really mafia, these editors could not get away from me.
In fact, everybody has the right to set up newspapers, but you must base your writing
on facts. If I was mafia, these persons could not get away...
You know, I do not have a very close relationship with the government. I just sent
a letter to the government asking them to take this matter into consideration.
The newspapers claim I have many wives and that I only eat food cooked by my own
wife...it's not true.
The Cambodian business climate
Business transactions in Cambodia are going stupid, they're going mad. We have
no progress at all....All the foreign companies, for me, if they want to invest in
Cambodia, they must come with clear proposals. They ought to consult with the CDC
[Cambodian Development Council] and the Ministry of Commerce, about what they want
to invest in, how much money they have. It must be clear.
Don't believe in one or two words of our Royal Government or our local traders -
all are crooks.
The CDC does not affect our trade but the CDC asks foreign investors to pass through
it first. I'm not saying that [some investors do not go through the CDC] but they
must be open [in declaring] "I have one million, two million or ten million
or twenty million dollars and I want to do this or that business."
Will the current political situation affect investment?
Although it is said that there is turmoil in the government it is irrelevant to
me. Certainly, my country of birth is Cambodia but I can walk away from it at any
time. For example, if Cambodia endures change - if I'm pleased, I stay but if I'm
not, I leave. Nobody can buy me and who can do what to me? In Phnom Penh, I have
my construction [work], my assets and I have my people to look after them. By seeing
me walk away, don't worry that I run away. There are people who are rightful to claim
and look after them.
I don't think that our government will see any major upheavals. [But] I think that
politicians must still think about their own future. Not just to do whatever they
want to, regardless of the CPP, Funcinpec and other political parties. Each has to
consider the future of the nation. If everyone just comes to destroy, I have no ability
to prevent such a thing.
Thai Boon Roong's major current projects
I invested more than $70 million in a cement factory and I'm still committed to
doing it. I wanted to set up a cement factory in Kampot province. I also intend to
build a road from the railway station to the airport...I have the plan and I'm waiting
for experts to conduct a feasibility study on how the road can be built...I've submitted
the proposal [to the government].
Is he Cambodia's richest businessman?
I cannot answer this question. For a hotel or a factory, I can put capital in
them. Not because I'm the richest [businessman] but because I have the ability to
do major projects. Banks trust me and they lend me the money.
His business history
I came [back to Cambodia, after leaving in 1972] in 1988 and in 1990 I had the
right to purchase land in Phnom Penh. In 1990, the [State of Cambodia] government
returned my citizenship because I was born in Cambodia, in Kompong Cham. My parents
were business people in Kompong Cham. My mother lives in Phnom Penh [now]. I left
Cambodia in 1972. During the past 20 years and more, I have lived in Thailand, Singapore,
Hong Kong and Vietnam. The war forced me to leave. I did not run away from the country
like Sam Rainsy said.
[Before 1972] I was a farmer and I became a rice trader. I traded rice in Siem Reap,
I had a truck to go buy rice in Siem Reap. There, some of my relatives are still
alive and have contact with me. I lived in Siem Reap and Battambang before 1970.
I used to run a ricemill in Thmar Puok. I could afford 80-100 trucks [of rice] at
a time. I could borrow money from someone else. My stay in Thailand [from 1972] was
helped by my previous business links I used to have with Thais. They asked me to
do business in Thailand. My business was very good in Thailand. I never borrowed
[money] from anyone, but commodity traders would give me loans [of goods]. The Chinese
community among the Bangkok people gave me loans.
In 1988 I came to settle in Cambodia. Before that, I traded commodities as import-exports
- clothes, garments, motorcycles, cars, sugar, flour - these I imported to Cambodia.
These goods were imported since 1980 but I never came here myself.
In 1984, my ship transported Red Cross aid like rice to help Cambodia. Then, I also
used to come in [to visit]. I saw everything was so strict as the country was communist.
I went back and throughout the '80s I was doing business in Hong Kong. I had an import-export
office in Hong Kong.
In 1988, I never stayed here - just came and went. Then I imported textiles from
Taiwan, South Korea. I sold textiles to Cambodian traders who took them across to
Newspapers report that he left Cambodia for Thailand in 1972 after being convicted
of drug smuggling.
Let them find documents...They wrote that the Battambang court sentenced me to
20 years in prison....check with the provincial governor if there is my name.
His contributions to the government
Talking about me giving gifts to the government or the Prime Ministers, [whether
it is] appropriate or not, it depends on you, the takers. My view in doing that is
that some affairs involve sentiment, involve liking each other. It is not bribery
for the Prime Ministers to allow me to do anything. Like Samdech Krom Preah, talking
about the plane - he had lamented about his lack [of transport]. I bought him [the
Kingair-200 plane] to make it easier for him to travel to the provinces. If I'm still
wrong in doing so, I don't know what else to say. I did not give it to the individual
but to the government to use. Our King, Samdech Hun Sen, Samdech Chea Sim can fly
Talking about the bullet proof Mercedes he [Hun Sen] presently uses, it was bought
by the CPP. If you want to be clear on this, ask [CPP secretary-general] Mr Say Chhum.
He is the one who arranged to pay for the purchase for Hun Sen. I imported that car
and he [Say Chhum] sent his people to take it from the customs officials. Did I bribe
Samdech Hun Sen with that? I got the money from the party to buy it. For the airplane,
Samdech Krom Preah asked the government to write a letter to thank me. He and Samdech
Hun Sen sent a letter thanking me. Did I bribe them? First, I never paid attention
when newspapers published the story [about the plane]. They published the story even
without having accurate information. And it's down-grading for our Prime Ministers
to be defamed like that. Like the car I bought for Samdech Hun Sen, at that time
I was asked to buy not one but three - [for] Samdech Chea Sim and Sar Kheng as well,
but I could not find [the other two] to buy. To buy a bullet-proof car, you cannot
immediately have it as you wish. Samdech Chea Sim and Sar Kheng wanted one each.
I could get only one, for Samdech Hun Sen.
The Nov 1995 Far Eastern Economic Review article which reported that Charles Twining
had warned the government that Boonma was involved with drugs
At that time, I telephoned to try to set a meeting with Charles Twining. He said
he was busy having meetings because he was to be replaced. When I went to meet Twining,
he refused to see me but let his chargé d'affaires see me instead. I took
a journalist with me. They said they did not want to respond through newspaper. I
said he [Twining] had said this and I asked him [the chargé d'affaires] if
he had any evidence. He said that he [Twining] had not said that. He said if I needed
him to clarify something he would write. If he is needed to make a clarification,
he would do so for me.
He [Twining] met with Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh and told him that he never
said that. Cham Prasidh asked him why he did not write a denial if he did not say
so. He [Twining] said that he did not want to exchange correspondence with the newspapers
and Sam Rainsy. But this is about a meal they had together, where Sam Rainsy told
him that I'm involved in the smuggling [of drugs].
The 71 kilos [of heroin seized in Koh Kong in August] is blamed on me. You seize
it somewhere and point the finger at me. Why did you not break the necks of those
you arrested to dig up evidence [of who was involved]?
Allegations (reported in FEER) that Thai Boon Roong has twice been fined for smuggling,
including one case involving 104kgs of gold
Sam Rainsy said I brought in six Mercedes without paying tax. I never had a tax-free
Mercedes. I paid full tax on the car I now have. I told my lawyer to check with the
Ministry of Finance. The cars were said to be used in arranging security for the
King who was due to return to Cambodia [in 1993]. They [the government] owed me for
more than a year before they could pay it. The Thai Boon Roong company did import
the cars but don't say I smuggled them without paying tax. I say that man [Rainsy]
is f***ing foolish, he knows nothing. The vehicles arrived before the return of King
Sihanouk. The Ministry of Interior approached me for help and I bought them from
the United States. For this matter [of the 104kg of gold in 1993]...check with the
Customs Department. I had a license to bring in 1,000 kilograms of gold at Pochentong.
The people accompanying the gold had no one to receive them at the airport [Pochentong]
upon arrival. They were agitated at the airport, causing suspicion among the customs
officials. They searched them and found 104 kilograms of gold. The customs fined
me $3112. He [Rainsy?] exaggerated this matter to accuse me of smuggling gold. Wrong
information, but I asked him to check the documents at the Customs Department. It
was a three percent charge on the tax due - $30 per kilo or $3112 on the total amount
of gold. It was our recklessness in not sending somebody to meet those people. They
[customs] suspected that we tried to avoid paying tax. They transported the gold
to the Ministry [of Finance] without my knowledge. Then they informed me that they
had held my people. Reporters wrote that I smuggled gold.
On his citizenship, and that he is on a US government 'lookout' list of drug suspects
It's just rumor. Why was I issued with a visa to enter the United States [to accompany
Chea Sim there in May 1995]?...I have my house in the United States and my children
are studying there, so why can't I go there? I don't have Thai, Hong Kong, Chinese
citizenship but I have special rights to live there. When the Khmer Rouge took power
, I was in Thailand, with a Khmer passport. The Thais said you cannot use that
passport....[Thai General] Chavalit, he was a powerful man, in charge of the military
and security. He issued me a letter permitting me to stay in Thailand. Now, I use
only a Khmer passport. It is in the name of Teng Boonma, no different names.