The rise and rise of a Cambodian capitalist
By Shawn W Crispin
PHNOM PENH – Kith Meng's is the bold new face of Cambodian capitalism. Widely
considered the country's richest entrepreneur, the Sino-Khmer businessman
presides over a sprawling business empire held under his Royal Group of
Companies which has leveraged into and helped drive Cambodia's recent economic
With impeccable political connections - including not least his role as a
personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen - Kith Meng, 37, has secured a
growing trove of lucrative government
concessions, licenses and land deals that his Royal Group has in sometimes
controversial fashion translated into big business profits.
Those include his controlling stakes in CTN television, mobile telecom leader
Mobitel, the Camlot lottery company and a 45% stake in a commercial banking
joint venture with Australia's ANZ Bank, where he serves as board chairman and
reportedly drives strategic decision-making.
Last year he purchased the swanky Cambodiana Hotel, newly established the
Infinity Insurance company and accumulated extensive property holdings and
development concessions in the capital Phnom Penh, in what his critics contend
are often opaque deals brokered with various line ministries. (Kith Meng could
not be reached through his Royal Group for comment.)
His growing service sector empire has drawn both favorable and unfavorable
comparisons to neighboring Thailand's telecom tycoon-cum-prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra's commercial and political ascent. He reportedly will seek a seat on
the national senate at upcoming elections and some Phnom Penh-based analysts
see him one day as a potential successor to the 55-year-old Hun Sen, who they
note rose to political prominence through his military prowess rather than
A former refugee from political violence, Kith Meng's is one of Cambodia's most
compelling rags to riches stories. His father, Kith Peng Ike, a Sino-Khmer
businessman and landlord, was singled out as a "class enemy" during the Khmer
Rouge's genocidal purges and he reportedly died from starvation in one of the
radical Maoist group's labor camps.
Kith Meng and his family fled the country for Australia, where he was raised
and educated. He returned to his war-torn homeland in the early 1990s to help
his elder brother, Sophan Kith, to develop the resurrected family business,
which upon reestablishment was first known as the Royal Cambodia Company. The
enterprise started modestly, supplying furniture, food and office equipment to
the United Nations authority that ushered Cambodia's rocky transition from
civil war to parliamentary democracy.
In 1991 the Royal Group won the rights to distribute exclusively Canon copiers
throughout the country and it quickly spun those monopoly revenues into a joint
venture in 1993 with Motorola to establish one of Cambodia's first wireless
communication networks. It later did a deal with Luxembourg's Millicom
International Cellular, which over the years has grown into the country's
leading mobile telecom outfit, Mobitel.
In 1994 Sophan Kith died under mysterious circumstances and, peculiar to
cultural norms of seniority as the youngest sibling, Kith Meng took control
over the family business. He now serves as both the company's chairman and
chief executive officer and his cut-throat approach to business expansion has
rapidly transformed the Royal Group into Cambodia's leading service sector
As a Western-educated, 37-year-old entrepreneur, Kith Meng's resume stands out
among the older generation of ethnic Chinese businessmen who dominate
Cambodia's traditional economy. Cambodian politicians have long relied on
Sino-Khmer businessmen to run crucial sectors of the national economy, similar
to the ethnic-based government-business nexuses seen in Thailand and Indonesia.
In Cambodia that privilege comes with a royal title known as Okhna, which is
bestowed on those who make sizable financial contributions to the royal family.
Kith Meng is believed to be one of the youngest businessmen to ever receive the
honorific and his meteoric commercial rise includes his recent selection as the
head the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce.
As Cambodia becomes more integrated into the global economy, Kith Meng has
emerged as the government's de facto spokesman for selling the country to
potential foreign investors as a profitable and desirable place to do business.
He is regularly seen on local television wining and dining foreign business
delegations. On the Royal Group's website is a pitch to potential foreign
investors to help build its proposed Royal Caesar Casino, which it's billing as
"the largest and most dazzling gaming facility in the Cambodia hemisphere".
Beyond the diplomacy and hype, there is much more at play to Kith Meng's
growing prominence than mere spin-doctoring. Some political analysts contend
that Hun Sen has played an instrumental role in cultivating and mobilizing the
young entrepreneur's modern business image in a vigorous public relations
effort to shirk his and his government's notorious reputation as the "Mafia on
Cambodia emerged from nearly three decades of civil war only to become known as
a regional hub for illicit business, including rampant money laundering, drug
smuggling, human trafficking and illegal logging. Hun Sen and his Cambodia
People's Party's (CPP) have been directly linked to shadowy figures reputedly
involved in illicit businesses, including his established ties to businessman
Theng Bunma, who has contributed millions of dollars to the premier's past
election campaigns and also implicated by US authorities for alleged drug
As Cambodia's aboveground economy booms, state concessions are no doubt
providing rich new sources of legitimate revenues for Hun Sen's government. It
is unknown whether Kith Meng contributes funds directly to his CPP, but his
concession payments to line ministries are no doubt bolstering state coffers.
One Phnom Penh-based Western businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity
and claims to have personally conducted the due diligence research on the Royal
Group's recent joint venture with Australia's ANZ Bank says that his in-depth
investigations failed to turn up any "dirty laundry" in Kith Meng's past or
present business dealings.
Reborn landed gentry
That's not to say his business practices lack for controversy. Kith Meng's
style has reportedly ruffled feathers among the more established Okhna
represented in the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce, whereby the older generation
of Sino-Khmer businessmen have bristled at his perceived patronizing lectures
about globalization and at what some of them reportedly view as his overly
direct Western-style of interaction.
Whether those complaints stem from genuine pique or instead heartfelt fear of
Kith Meng's expanding reach into other Okhna's once monopolized markets is
unclear. One Western aid agency representative, who spoke with Asia Times
Online on condition of anonymity, says that soon after launching last year’s
joint venture with ANZ Bank, Kith Meng pushed to expand the bank's local branch
network much faster than ANZ first planned. That aggressive strategy, it turns,
has paid off handsomely through a fast growing market share of deposits and the
lion's share of loans in the nascent home mortgage market.
Other times, critics say, Kith Meng's Royal Group pushes too hard. In June 2006
police armed with batons, tear gas and AK47 assault rifles evicted at least 20
families from a contested land plot worth several million dollars next to Phnom
Penh's Preah Monivong Hospital which the government had controversially awarded
to the Royal Group for development. The resident families were reportedly given
US$500-$1,500 in compensation and trucked to a relocation site 30 kilometers
outside the capital which lacked electricity and water.
Similar complaints have arisen from his plans for the landmark Bassac Theater.
In 2005, the culture ministry granted the concession, which called on the Royal
Group to rehabilitate the damaged structure in exchange for the rights to
outfit the theater's surrounding land with new offices and a conference center.
The company has since decided to demolish the historic building and evict the
scores of artists who after the Khmer Rouge's "class enemy" purges took refuge
in the old theater.
Those same artists have resurrected the traditional Khmer art forms that the
Maoist movement aimed to destroy and after squatting at the historic site for
over a decade, each has received $300 to abandon an area where land prices now
top $1,000 per square meter. The irony of such deals is not lost on Kith Meng's
critics, who contend that the Royal Group is capitalizing on the legal vacuum
for adjudicating land ownership rights created by the Khmer Rouge's destruction
of the national land registries.
On the Royal Group's website, Kith Meng says in a statement that the company's
origins trace "back to the early days of the Khmer Rouge occupation" – meaning,
presumably, the property and businesses his father maintained before the
radical Maoist movement killed him and drove his family, including a young Kith
Meng, into exile. In Cambodia's latest capitalist incarnation, government
connections often trump historical claims and reassert old social class
divisions, of which Kith Meng's and the Royal Group's fast expanding commercial
domain is living proof.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.