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Drugs and Politics

By Bertil Lintner

The local politicians who are standing for election in Cambodia's first commune polls on February 3 are more than just bureaucrats. Some also supervise and benefit from local business, and in today's Cambodia, that often means crime.

Even the usually cautious United Nations International Drug Control Programme states in its report for Cambodia that the country has become a centre for criminal organizations involved in "illicit drug production and trafficking, smuggling and exploitation of human beings, kidnappings, prostitution, illegal gambling, arms trafficking and extortion."

So it is hardly a coincidence that much of the election-related violence, including more than a third of the political killings, has taken place in Kompong Cham province, which is emerging as a major conduit for drugs smuggled from northern Cambodia and then across the Vietnamese frontier.

According to Cambodian police sources, hundreds of kilograms of heroin pass through the country every year from Burma via Laos, and the amounts are increasing.

Production of narcotics is also increasing in Cambodia. No opium-from which heroin is derived-is grown in Cambodia, but illegal, commercial cultivation of cannabis has been detected in eight of the country's 23 provinces, according to the UNDCP.

According to an internal Cambodian police report, local production of methamphetamines is now also taking place in western Cambodia, near the Thai border, and in the capital Phnom Penh itself. Stockpiles are stored in a string of newly opened casinos in the border towns of Poipet and Koh Kong, the report says, and, according to the UNDCP, the casinos are also used to launder drug money, a charge supported by reports from the U.S. State Department.

"Most if not all production is protected by Cambodian officials," the UNDCP reports. And the rot is not confined to the commune level. Three chiefs of the National Authority for Combating Drugs have been sacked for suspicion of complicity in drug-trafficking. In October last year NACD boss Em Sam An was dismissed following the arrest of his personal assistant on trafficking charges. Much to the annoyance of donor countries, which have pressed for tougher action against corruption and crime in Cambodia, Em Sam An retains his other government post: secretary of state at the Ministry of the Interior.

The new, fourth head of the NACD, Gen. Teng Savong, is considered a no-nonsense, professional soldier and gets good marks from the head of the UNDCP office in Phnom Penh, Bengt Juhlin. But the question is how much the general can do in a country where local officials earn a pittance, and where internationally connected crime syndicates are becoming more daring, better connected and more entrenched. That is bad news for Cambodia's fledgling and fragile democracy-and for local candidates who challenge commune leaders.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, February 07, 2002

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