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Thailand’s former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Photo: AFP

Who gave Thailand’s ex-PM Yingluck Shinawatra a Cambodian passport?

  • Officials insist Thailand’s former leader Yingluck Shinawatra hasn’t been given a Cambodian passport
  • So how she used one to register a company in Hong Kong is a mystery that points to the ‘highest levels’, observers say
The news that Thailand’s former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is in possession of a Cambodian passport poses a troubling question for many of her new-found compatriots: who gave it to her? The self-exiled leader, who fled Thailand in August 2017 before being sentenced to prison on what she says are politically motivated charges, used a Cambodian passport to register as the sole director of a Hong Kong company incorporated in August last year – as revealed by the South China Morning Post.

But Phnom Penh has denied that Yingluck holds a Cambodian passport and observers question whether there has been a royal decree conferring citizenship on her – something that is required of all other foreigners.

Passports for sale: Yingluck’s Cambodian, you could be too

Mu Sochua, vice-president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, said she did not believe Cambodian officials’ claims they were not aware of Yingluck’s Cambodian passport.

“There are many, many issues in terms of legality and sovereignty as far as Cambodia is concerned … where is the royal decree? No citizenship can be issued without a royal decree, and to get a passport from any country, you need to be a citizen of that country,” said Sochua, who fled her own country in 2017.

Mu Sochua, vice-president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Photo: Reuters

Sochua demanded Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen investigate.

“Isn’t he concerned that an ex-prime minister holds a passport of his country? And if he has not ordered it, then who has? Who ordered the passport to be issued?

“For Yingluck, an ex-minister of Thailand, I don’t think an official at the Ministry of Interior or the Foreign Ministry would dare to [issue it] – even if she wanted to buy it for a million dollars.”

Sochua believes Yingluck received the passport because of her ties with Hun Sen. Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, also a former prime minister of Thailand in self-imposed exile, used to be an adviser to the Cambodian government.

Cambodia launches crackdown on passports

“The Thai junta government has collaborated with the Hun Sen regime in deporting Cambodian political asylum seekers to Cambodia. The question is: will the Thai junta ask Hun Sen to seek the deportation of Yingluck if and when she travels with the Cambodian passport?” added Sochua.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the decision to grant Yingluck a passport must have come from “the highest levels” of the Cambodian government.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: AP

“She would never have been issued a passport based on money alone. She is, after all, the former prime minister of Thailand.

“You cannot have, say the former prime minister of Canada, acquire US citizenship,” he said.

Ear knows too well the troubles of acquiring a Cambodian passport, having gone through the process himself. He says the process “for normal people” involves waiting in line for hours and paying a small bribe to officials to shorten the wait.

A Cambodian official said this month that the country “never” issued passports to foreigners, but the Khmer Times reported last year that 1,518 foreigners had been granted Cambodian nationality between 2014 and 2017.

No breakdown of the foreigners’ country of origin was available. But observers suggest many are Chinese, as Cambodia has seen an influx of Chinese investors following the rolling out of President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

“I imagine countless Chinese investors have [a Cambodian passport]. Like anything else in Cambodia, it’s a commodity. It’s bought and sold, just name the price – on the condition of course that your politics do not conflict with the ruler’s,” Ear said.

The sudden influx of Chinese has brought about dramatic changes. Locals complain the beach town of Sihanoukville has been transformed into a Chinatown, with stores replaced by casinos and Chinese restaurants.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Photo: Post Magazine

Noan Sereiboth, a member of youth forum Politikoffee in Cambodia, said the influx had been accompanied by “gambling, gangsters, money laundering, drugs, and social issues”.

“The price of hotels in [Sihanoukville] is so expensive. Local people do not want to visit,” he said. “Some people said it is like Macau.”

Cambodia denies it issued a passport to former Thai prime minister

A Cambodian passport also allows investors to do something a foreign passport holder cannot – own land.

American Reid Kirchenbauer, founder of real estate private equity fund Khmer Ventures, said one way to qualify for Cambodian citizenship was to live in the country for seven years and be fluent in Khmer. Otherwise, citizenship could be granted in return for an investment in the country of about US$300,000.

“A Cambodian passport is one of the world’s least valuable. But it does allow visa-free travel to anywhere in Southeast Asia, including normally difficult places like Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. It’s also one way to directly own land in Cambodia,” said Kirchenbaue, from the United States.

Kirchenbaue said Phnom Penh was one of the few capital cities in the world where centrally located property cost under US$1,000 per square metre, while rental yields above 8 per cent were common.

While that may be appealing to foreigners seeking to invest, the side effects of this are less appealing for locals.

“From my experience, the locals in Sihanoukville indeed aren’t happy about the [influx of] Chinese,” said Kirchenbaue.