Fugitive Thai politician Vatana Asavahame, linked to management of the Poipet casino devastated by a deadly fire last week, received Cambodian citizenship in a 2008 royal decree, according to documents viewed by CamboJA.
Asavahame’s wife has business ties to tycoon Ly Yong Phat. Both appear connected to the management of the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino, which became engulfed in fire last Wednesday, killing at least 26 people and injuring dozens.
Provincial authorities say they are still investigating the cause of the fire, initially blamed on electrical overload.
Asavahame, a former Thai deputy interior minister, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison in August, 2008 for his role in a major corruption scandal over the construction of a wastewater treatment plant. There remains an active warrant for his arrest, the Bangkok Post reported.
Yet Asavahame, now 87, fled Thailand months before his conviction. He and his Thai wife, Pinyapap Sunee, 65, received Cambodian citizenship on May 28, 2008 from King Norodom Sihamoni.
Vatana changed his name to Sok Sambath and Sunee changed her name to Mean Veasna, the decree stated.
“Political and business connections are probably what allowed him [Asavahame] to flee the country to Cambodia,” said Mark S. Cogan, an expert on Thailand at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. “There is a revolving door of political and business interests between Thailand and Cambodia.”
Government spokesperson Phay Sipan did not respond to requests for comment.
Asavahame’s wife, Veasna, is listed as a director of Grand Diamond Holding Private Limited Company and Ly Yong Phat is listed as a director of Diamond City Private Limited Company. Both companies share the same email and corporate address in Ou Chrov commune in Poipet, according to Ministry of Commerce records, and each company was incorporated in early 2002.
The two companies also share an address with Grand Exclusive, the hospitality company operating the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino, which opened in October 2001. Grand Exclusive’s website no longer functions.
Neither Veasna or Ly Yong Phat responded to requests for comment and Asavahame could not be reached for comment. Ly Yong Phat’s son, Phat Bunhour, said he doesn’t know anything about his father’s involvement with the Grand Diamond City hotel and casino.
A native of Koh Kong province, Ly Yong Phat has long had close business relationships with Thailand, such as his company Air Siem Reap’s affiliation with Bangkok Airways. Ly Yong Phat also helped Thai sugar conglomerates KSL Industry and Mitr Phol gain massive concessions in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey in 2006 and 2007, which were later connected to rights violations and forced evictions, according to human rights group Licadho.
While Ly Yong Phat is involved in a variety of entertainment businesses, the website of the Ly Yong Phat Group does not list any official connection to Grand Diamond City casino.
A Cambodian businessman named Seoum Sa Im is listed in Ministry of Commerce records as the chairman of Grand Diamond Holding Private Limited Company as of April 2022 and a director of Diamond City Private Limited Company as of August 2022.
An April, 2018 Facebook post by the Poipet military police thanked “Mr. Seoum Sa Im, Director General of Grand Diamond Casino” for donating refreshments.
When reached by reporters, Sa Im confirmed his identity and connection to the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino but claimed he was no longer involved in the business.
“I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there,” he said, when asked about the casino. “I’m not working there anymore.”
Sa Im hung up before any further questions could be asked.
Besides Ly Yong Phat and Sa Im, Diamond City Private Limited Company lists Thai national Sookjai Aektrakul as a director and Manat Bumrerjit as chairman of the board, per Ministry of Commerce records. A Linkedin profile lists Bumrerjit as employee relations manager at Grand Diamond City.
Neither Aektrakul, Bumrerjit nor the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh could be reached for comment.
Din Puthy, head of the Cambodian Informal Economic Workers Association in Poipet, said he believed authorities had not yet released enough information about the cause of the fire.
“We see that the authorities seem to be hiding something,” he said. “They may be afraid it will affect the tourism sector because they don’t check with the owner [of the casino] about the safety system.”
Puthy added the blame for the fire and its deadly outcome also likely lay with authorities, if the building was not following safety regulations.
In a speech expressing condolences to victims of the fire last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed frustration at the inability of rescuers to access the highest floors of the 5,600 square meter casino and indicated safety protocols should be improved.
Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak declined to comment and referred questions to Banteay Meanchey police chief Sith Luos. He said authorities began investigating the casino fire to understand its cause.
“We are working on that investigation by following the technical process and will let you know the result after that,” Luos said.
He added that the owner of the casino was of Thai nationality but claimed to not know more about their identity.
“I don’t know his name,” Luos said. “But he welcomes our investigation.”
Ashavame is not the only well-connected Thai official to have fled to Cambodia to avoid charges in Thailand. Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra allegedly received a Cambodian passport which allowed her to travel to other countries after Thailand voided her passport. (The Cambodian government has denied it issued Shinawatra a passport).
Asavahame has been linked to other illegal activities before his corruption conviction. He was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. in 1994 by the U.S. state department due to allegations of drug trafficking.
“There seems to be a huge disparity there, where you have high ranking officials charged with high crimes — corruption, malfeasance and all sorts of nefarious activities — and the Thai or Cambodian side of the border is not interested in prosecution,” Cogan said.
Yet Cambodian dissidents and political activists seeking refuge in Thailand have faced extradition, in violation of international law according to Human Rights Watch. Thai dissidents fleeing to Cambodia have mysteriously disappeared, with signs of foul-play.
“On the other side of the coin, [authorities] are interested in repatriating Thai or Cambodian dissidents who have fled the scene,” Cogan said. “And that kind of regime cooperation is all too common.”