The Debate

Cambodian Propaganda: Playing the Victim to Get Away With Murder

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

Cambodian Propaganda: Playing the Victim to Get Away With Murder

In recent months, government-aligned media outlets have had one mission: to deflect and deny reports about the country’s surge in sophisticated cyber-fraud operations.

Cambodian Propaganda: Playing the Victim to Get Away With Murder

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet poses for a photo with his incoming cabinet in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 10, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Hun Manet

In recent weeks, Cambodia’s state-aligned media has been flooded with articles attempting to recast the narrative around one of the ruling elite’s core economic interests: human trafficking-fueled scamming.

The evidence is overwhelming. Over the past three years, Cambodia has become the epicenter of a globally unprecedented phenomenon in state-facilitated criminality: an online scam industry that enslaves more than 100,000 foreign nationals, according to the (generally conservative and understated) estimates of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), this racket likely generates a staggering $7.5-12.5 billion per year in Cambodia alone.

Independent media reports corroborate the story of the probable scale of Cambodian scam operations and the profound abuse that accompanies them. Victim statements from counter-trafficking NGOs and network analysis by global experts in transnational crime offer further evidence. As do three years of complaints and hand-wringing by Cambodia’s regional neighbors, some of whom are warning their nationals against taking job offers in the country.

According to the evidence, Cambodia’s scamming industry begins and ends with a ruling elite that has welcomed and facilitated the mass immigration of sophisticated organized criminals, mostly from China, over the last 15-20 years. Many of these have since become naturalized Cambodian citizens, gaining legal cover and providing a key source of income to the regime.

Government-aligned Cambodian media begs to differ. In a press release last month, which was duly replicated by faithful media outlets, officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed that Cambodia has stringent limitations on who can naturalize. “Foreigners must go through many police procedures before being granted Cambodian citizenship,” it stated. “They are strictly vetted by Cambodian police to ensure that they are model citizens and have no criminal record.” Yet, something appears grossly amiss with the vetting.

There is a reason She Zhijiang (famed Chinese criminal and Cambodian naturalized citizen) is lobbying weekly in the Bangkok Post to be “extradited” to Cambodia from where he has operated a criminal empire for years. There’s a reason nine of the 10 Fujian-born criminals arrested in Singapore last month (assets seized: $2 billion and counting) also held Cambodian passports. There’s a reason the Ministry of Information obscures public access to the list of naturalized citizens and is seeking to block outside channels reporting on it.

The reason is dirty money – a lot of it.

Cambodia’s scam industry now persists at scale because the Kingdom’s most powerful people own scam compounds, control opaque immigration processes, and profit in myriad other ways from this criminal industry. Given what is known about Cambodia’s political patronage network, if UNODC’s calculations are accurate, the profits going back to the CPP from this industry may be so high that they approach an existential level. After all, $12.5 billion is nearly half of the country’s GDP.

As the apex predators of this globe-spanning racket, the CPP collectively holds a stake too significant to undercut for something as abstract as international reputation, tourism revenue (which often peskily eludes elite capture), or common decency.

It follows that instead of fighting reputational losses via legitimate reform, the CPP is directing maximum state/para-state resources at a cycle of denial, repression, and cover-up.

In 2022, this cycle took on the following character. From January to March, state media continuously highlighted incoherent statements from government officials denying the existence of human trafficking or scam-related criminality on any scale. One official said of the industry’s victims, “it’s not confinement, it is just that they cannot leave.” Alternatively, government officials have described the problem as one of “illegal online gambling,” in order to distort the reality: state-sanctioned slavery that generates billions in revenue. These blundering official statements (among many, many others) have been dutifully buttressed by equally incoherent arguments from government-aligned media outlets.

Then, in March, the strategy pivoted to repression. Chen Baorong, a Chinese-Cambodian man helping to assist victims and collect data on elite ties to the industry, was arrested, and later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on spurious charges. Additional intimidation was lobbed at civil society groups and journalists, culminating in legal threats against an American activist.

After Cambodia’s scamming industry (and its thick elite ties) featured in a July 2022 Al Jazeera documentary and the 2022 U.S. trafficking in persons report, the cycle shifted to cover-up. A crackdown was announced. Compounds believed to hold thousands of victims received tip-offs. Large numbers of people were pushed onto buses and shipped to less visible compounds. These haphazard evacuations conveniently took place days before government “raids” found the compounds more or less abandoned. Much rhetoric was spent on “strong commitment” and “vigilance” in advance of the ASEAN Summit, an embarrassing finale to an embarrassing tenure as chair.

Then, in 2023, the cycle repeated. In January, old compounds began to repopulate as reports of abuse continued piling up. Official denial ensued.

By February, things again reached the breaking point and repression resumed in earnest. VOD English, one of Cambodia’s last independent media outlets (and the one directly responsible for doggedly pursuing the scam industry story) was shuttered on phony charges. The onslaught of repression continued as state media and an army of CPP-aligned social media trolls proceeded to viciously attack VOD’s lead local journalist on the issue. This journalist was later granted a Trafficking in Persons Hero of the Year award by the U.S. State Department.

After a few months’ pause for a sham election, which resulted in the dynastic succession of the current prime minister, Hun Manet, the cycle returned to cover-up. Claims again of “mission accomplished” replete with targeted and repeated official slander of victim testimony.

As 2023 draws to a close, the propagandist cycle folds back on itself once more. With evidence and international attention now reaching a fever-pitch, the current round of denial appears focused on three dominant strands of misinformation.

First, CPP apologists parrot an old refrain about Western powers oppressing and seeking to destabilize the country. This approach was on display in Raoul Jennar’s recent piece of clumsy political sophistry aimed squarely at this publication. Here, the CPP apologist hopes to stir up old animosity at legitimate wrongs perpetrated by the West against Cambodia. The specific move is then to weaponize any lingering resentment to obscure the rampant criminality of the modern-day ruling elite.

Second is the related claim that “fake news” reports are scaring away tourists with false narratives. Despite its myriad dishonesties, this second tactic relies on a simple and undeniable fact. Tourism is dwindling in Cambodia, particularly among Chinese, and this is at least partly because no one wants to end up stuck in a scam compound.

The insinuation from such esteemed outlets as Fresh News Media and the 2023 iteration of the Phnom Penh Post, is that this is purely a product of media alarmism. But the idea that outlets as diverse in platform and message as the Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times, ProPublica, The Economist, and the LA Times are all conspiring to “defame” the CPP, is patently absurd. The government’s recent condemnations of “No More Bets,” a Beijing-endorsed box-office mega-hit dramatizing life inside Cambodia’s scam industry, only underscores the point.

Lastly is the self-victimizing claim that the criminals in question are foreigners, not Cambodians. This point builds on the xenophobic clarion calls of the first two narratives but then redirects the resulting popular anger (assuming, charitably, that anyone is buying these claims) at the transnational criminals themselves. Here also comes the direct claim that the government of Cambodia has in no way been complicit in the rise of this industry. Again, this claim ignores or willfully mangles a mountain of evidence – according to which the majority of high-ranking members of Cambodia’s political elite have first-degree connections to the industry.

This sophistic onslaught by Cambodian state-aligned media is telling and disturbing in its own right. Yet, it follows in a long tradition of badly trained and unprincipled “journalists” rising predictably in the defense of their kleptocratic overlords when foreign criticism inevitably comes calling.

This tendency and some of the same misinformative trends arise after each flawed election; every tone-deaf civil society crackdown; and of course the periodic exposure of various elite-dominated industries situated at the nexus of extractive criminality and overt human rights abuses.

The current situation differs materially for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the government and its cheerleaders have become more willing to “call out” Western critics as Cambodia has become less reliant on Western aid money.

The real difference, however, is the magnificent scale involved and who the victims are. The CPP’s traditional kleptocratic model – whether its pillaging of Cambodia’s natural resources, its incessant land grabbing, or its exploitative, state-monopolized microfinance industry – primarily victimizes Cambodians.

This time, the CPP’s predation has gone global. It is Chinese and Thai and Indonesian and Vietnamese and Malaysian and [insert 35+ additional nationalities here] citizens who languish at the bottom of this pit of state-sanctioned corruption. And, it is Taiwanese, Singaporean, Australian, British, Canadian, and U.S. citizens who are its main financial victims.

In some ways, all of this could be seen as ironic justice for a Western world that has turned a blind eye to decades of predation by the CPP regime. Donor countries facilitate and prop up the mess. Aside from a few notable (including recent) exceptions, the U.N. community steps delicately around the issues to maintain their seat at the table. The Western aid industry generates billions annually off global sympathy for the Cambodian people while egregiously enabling the primary wellspring of that oppression. And now, the CPP, one of the world’s most able exponents of state criminality, is leaking its toxins back into the Western humanitarian-political milieu and its constituents.

Perhaps the scariest part is that CPP leadership has likely lost control of itself. Even if Hun Manet wanted a different end for his country, it is most likely beyond his means to attain. The thick web of elite criminal interests that now dominate Cambodian domestic politics is the CPP’s true power base and it is here to stay. Far too much sovereignty has already been ceded and the only way out for Hun the younger is further down into the murk.

And thus, as one of the world’s most stable and enduring sovereign criminal enterprises blunders into the next generation, we can all look forward to Fresh News & co continuing their clumsy but insistent efforts to distract the world from the sinister reality within.