The multimillion-dollar project to revamp Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng toll road for profit is being carried out by a company controlled by the brother-in-law of ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin.
Choeung Thean Seng, who is reputed to be an officer in the paramilitary Brigade 70, is a brother of Meng Khin’s wife, Choeung Sopheap, and chairman of the board of directors of Phnom Penh Tollway Co Ltd, which acquired the Veng Sreng contract in 2013.
The $10.5 million contract was “transferred” to Phnom Penh Tollway from a previous service provider, according to City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.
“When a project like this is transferred, there is no need to go through a bidding process. There is no law mandating a new bidding process,” he said, declining to name the company originally contracted to do the work.
When asked about Thean Seng’s alleged military connections, Dimanche said it was “impossible” that a military officer was connected to a major public works project.
Military officers are prohibited from holding directorships of companies under a 1997 law governing the armed forces.
Phnom Penh Tollway is registered to the same address as a number of other firms controlled by members of Meng Khin’s family, and the NVN Corporation, which is chaired by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, Hun Mana.
While a source with knowledge of the inner workings of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces confirmed the tycoon’s membership in the unit, attempts to reach Thean Seng and commanders of Brigade 70 were unsuccessful.
Meng Khin’s family, however, do have well-documented links to Brigade 70, which is headquartered near the western end of Veng Sreng Boulevard, where its members were deployed last year as strikebreakers.
In a 2007 report, the NGO Global Witness alleged that Brigade 70 operated as a unit-for-hire, its officers being rented by Cambodian industrialists to smuggle goods such as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and construction materials, as well as operating a nationwide timber trafficking network worth millions annually.
“Brigade 70’s clients [include] the infamous Pheapimex company run by Hun Sen crony Yeay Phu [Sopheap], as well as government officials and generals,” the NGO reported.
The unit provided personal protection for Prime Minister Hun Sen until 2009 when a separate Bodyguard Unit was created. It continues to operate outside of the regular military chain of command, answering directly to Hun Sen.
Brigade 70 has counted numerous high-profile tycoons among its ranks over the years, including Thong Sarath, a former deputy chief of staff at the Ministry of Defence, who was charged last year with ordering the murder of another construction mogul.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said that major construction projects such as the Veng Sreng development, which are outsourced to private companies, should be permitted only “through competitive and transparent process”.
“Without information, it is unclear how the transfer of contractual responsibilities and obligations is done and how it may comply or violate the law . . . The government or whoever funds this project should clarify such a deal.”