Interview: Sanctioned Cambodian official calls US graft charges ‘far from being true’

Cambodian Defense Ministry Director-General Chau Phirun and Navy Commander Tea Vinh were designated for U.S. sanctions on Wednesday under the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Treasury Department accused the pair of conspiring to illegally profit from the refurbishment of Ream Naval Base, near Sihanoukville. On Thursday, Chau Phirun denied the allegations, which came amid longstanding U.S. suspicions that a secret treaty had been signed granting the Chinese navy use of the base for 30 years – claims Phnom Penh has denounced as “fake news.” In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday, Chau Phirun strenuously denied he had profited from the construction of the based. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: The US has recently sanctioned you and General Tea Vinh in regard to serious corruptions you involved in the upgrade of the Ream Naval Base facilities. How would you respond to such accusation?

Chau Phirun: I do not have anything to seriously explain with regard to the U.S. accusation. I just think that such accusation is far from being true and that it was made without any actual written evidence on my case. I am a general at Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense and I am entrusted with the duties to manage and oversee the so-called project for the modernization of the Ream Naval Base. I simply think that a country that has the utmost power in the world and turns to impose sanctions or blacklist on a person or national of any country like myself, a Khmer citizen, it is not the right thing to do. I am working for our Khmer nationals and Khmer interests. The thing is that the Cambodian government and the Ministry of National Defense appointed me to carry out such work. And it happens that the U.S. is not happy with this issue and turns to impose sanctions on me. I think I have never done any wrongdoings in terms of either exploitation, conspiracy or collusion with the Chinese. Neither had I ever committed any acts of corruption at all. So I think it is not right.

RFA: Does this mean that you have not used your political influence or power in your position as a general in charge of managing the modernization project of the Ream Naval Base? And you did not exploit this project for personal gains as has been described by the U.S. Treasury Department? 

Chau Phirun:I do not think that such accusation is right at all. We held bilateral discussions with [the Chinese counterparts] in regard to this construction project and there are always concrete studies on the construction plan and proper assessments. It has gone through a proper financial audit. I am just the manager of that project. By accusing me of conspiring with Gen. Tea Vinh to exploit profits [from the project], it seems like saying that Cambodia is a lawless country. It is not correct at all.

RFA: But the U.S. claims that you and General Tea Vinh inflated the construction cost of the Ream Naval Base project and you both exploited profits from it. How would you explain that?

Chau Phirun:I would like to explain that in terms of project planning, elsewhere around the globe, among project planners, no one can design an accurate plan. There have always been discrepancies, say sometimes 10 percent or 20 percent or 5 percent. It is just a plan and no one can design it accurately. And when we submit it to the [donor country], for example, the initial cost in Cambodia should be $10, but in China the cost could be up to $20; so how can you make it accurate? Also, how could I withdraw money freely from China? How could I inflate the cost? It must have gone through the auditing commission! You may ask other project planners around the globe, who can design a 100% accurate project planning? There will always be discrepancies, as I said.

RFA: For the project at Ream Naval Base, can you disclose or elaborate how much exactly China has invested in this project? And when will the entire project conclude?

Chau Phirun: There are long-term stages for the entire construction project. I myself cannot determine the amount that they will pay us because there are several stages. For example, now we start constructing the repair workshop. It could be the first stage and it could last at least two years. Likewise, the construction of a slipway for the port; it could take at least over a year. The construction of learning facility for our army, it will be done in stages…We cannot sum up the project cost yet.

RFA: Does the fact that you mentioned that you cannot disclose that, further cause confusions or imply that there are some sorts of concealment without transparency or accountability with regard to what the Cambodian government has done with China now on this Ream Naval Base project?

Chau PhirunI do not understand that. Cambodia is a little country and so the cost of expenditure on this project will not likely be over thousands of millions of U.S, dollars. It should be at most 10-20 million U.S. dollars. And frankly that 10-20 million U.S. dollars, it cannot be used to build a base for nuclear or other weapons, based on the calculation. The U.S. considered this a threat. I could say that, in fact, it affects the political interest of the U.S as the latter is not happy to see us getting closer to another country. That should be the point! By putting sanctions on me like that, it means the U.S. uses its power to pressure a little country like Cambodia, so that we become intimidated.

RFA: But in terms of the development project at the Ream Naval Base, what has Cambodian government done in order to show to the international community, not just the U.S. but also Australia, Japan and other free world states, that it has shown its utmost transparency and honesty in this development project—without having any ill intentions, as it is alleged that Cambodia provides China exclusive rights over the use of the Ream Naval Base?

 Chau PhirunWe invited on several occasions foreign nationals who represent their respective countries that cooperate on this matter–such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Franc–so that they could come and conduct the visit at the Ream Naval Base. And they did not notice anything abnormal. But when the U.S. side conducted their visit, they just wanted to endlessly insist on inspect this place and other places. At Ream Naval Base, we have around 4 to 10 units of facilities. And when we denied their access, they accused us of concealing armed forces or other things. It really becomes complicated if they continue to use that pretext. It becomes something like a search rather than a friendly visit. 

 Translated by Samean Yun.

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