Cambodia’s ruling party is refuting criticism over expensive watches worn regularly by Prime Minister Hun Sen following a VICE News report that measured his carefully crafted everyman image against his million-dollar watch collection.
“The point here is that the watch was legally purchased. It wasn’t trafficked or bought with black money,” Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia Khmer Service on Wednesday, July 29, referring to Hun Sen’s sapphire blue leather Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon watch.
The response comes after VICE News published a piece on Tuesday, July 28, which quoted critics who questioned how Hun Sen, currently earning a modest official salary of about $2,500 a month, has been able to afford such extravagant watches.
The watch is said to retail for $1.2 million, though luxury watch experts say it ranks among the brand’s most exclusive and is not available in stores.
The spokesman told RFA that Hun Sen’s critics were simply jealous, adding that he was often gifted watches from visiting tycoons.
“I heard that Hun Sen did not even buy the Tourbillon watch,” Sok Eysan said. “It was a gift from a tycoon.”
According to RFA, the spokesman added that pricey wrist pieces from foreign dignitaries are often presented to Hun Sen during state visits and argued that the gestures were not excessive.
“I don’t think it is too much,” the spokesman said.
Yet even as gifts, critics say the watches are problematic.
“If Hun Sen did indeed accept those watches as gifts, he did so knowing many of his people continue to struggle to repay huge microfinance loans with interest rates of up to 18%. He could easily sell his Patek Philippe watch collection and use the proceeds to help the country,” exiled Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy—one of Hun Sen’s biggest critics—told VICE News.
He added that Hun Sen’s silence about the origin of his flashy watches shows how the prime minister is carefully trying to cultivate his modest image.
“The prime minister is sensitive about his wealth. Because if he purchased those watches, he would have needed to dip into proceeds of more than 30 years of corruption to do so,” Rainsy said.
Hun Sen, the strongman ruler of the world’s poorest developing nation, comes from humble beginnings, but his flashy watches reflect a penchant for high-end goods, critics say.
A recent Reuters investigation found that Hun Sen’s relatives and close associates have amassed assets worth tens of millions of dollars overseas, prompting outrage as many Cambodians continue to struggle financially.
Phil Robertson, Asia Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News in an interview, there was a fundamental problem of “total impunity” in South East Asia enjoyed by the ruling political elite, not only in Cambodia but also in neighboring countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.
“They plunder their countries while leaving so many of their own people destitute and stuck in a never-ending cycle of debt,” Robertson said.
“Ordinary Cambodians face grinding poverty every day. A government leader like Hun Sen owning a watch like that is consuming his country’s resources for personal gain,” he continued.
Robertson said that Hun Sen’s ability to flaunt expensive watches while maintaining his modest image reflects corruption among Cambodia’s highest ranks.
“The fact that he has not been called out on this more frequently is testament to the effective harassment and intimidation of those who dare to raise hard questions,” Robertson said.
“This sort of massive corruption is made possible by human rights abuses like the intimidation of political critics and the silencing of whistleblowers and local journalists.”