Cambodian officials and analysts have urged more cooperation and increased support to combat cyber-scamming, while declaring that recent reporting appeared to have been based on a “hidden agenda”.

The United States Institute for Peace (USIP) released a report titled “Transnational Crime in Southeast Asia: A Growing Threat to Global Peace and Security” on May 13. The report claimed to be an in-depth examination of cyber-scamming operations in the region.

In the case of Cambodia, they suggested that criminal-elite connections were firmly established and that criminal syndicates were prospering, not merely surviving.

“As of May 2024, Cambodia is host to large-scale, sophisticated cyber-scamming operations spread widely across the country,” said the more than 70-page report, which was created by a working group that offered several regional case studies.

The report claimed the returns from cyber scamming were estimated to exceed $12.5 billion annually.

Linking the crimes to money laundering, the report ignored the government’s efforts on the matter, and suggested that international anti-money-laundering organisation, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), had “quietly” removed Cambodia from their grey list. 

“This delisting followed a significant lobbying effort by the Cambodian government and was conducted in the absence of meaningful civil society consultation,” it said.

“Cambodia’s removal from the list, despite overwhelming evidence that its financial system is a key facilitator of industrial-scale money laundering, significantly strengthens the already well-aligned economic incentives for the scamming industry to flourish there,” it added.

They said the FATF delisting may leave Cambodia’s scamming industry to continue flourishing “unabated”. 

Issue ‘may deter investors’ 

Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID), noted that the issue of cybercrime in Cambodia has been raised by several NGOs. He described the USIP report as a wake-up call for Cambodia to pay more attention to combating and preventing these crimes, such as through the strengthening of law enforcement and cooperation with other nations.

“If cybercrimes continue or worsen, they will affect the reputation of Cambodia and drive the concerns of foreign investors, diminishing their confidence in investing here,” he said.

Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace, observed that scamming in Cambodia is a topic that many foreign observers have raised when discussing the issues the Kingdom is facing. He warned that these allegations can cause fear among many foreign visitors.

Kim Eng acknowledged the measures taken by the government on the matter, including the arrest and deportation of many suspects, often Chinese nationals.

“I think the government must rightly prevent the activities of scam syndicates who commit money laundering. However, there should be more international cooperation to combat it. For example, there should be closer cooperation with China when cases involve Chinese citizens, or with other countries if their citizens are involved.

“We could also look into the capability of the technological tools at our disposal to monitor scamming and find out how to prevent it. The capability of the authorities must remain ahead of criminals, so we can protect our fame and economic prosperity,” he said.

Report ‘appears politically motivated’

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said he did not agree with the report’s attempt to label Cambodia as a place where “large-scale scamming” was taking place.

 “I accept that there have been some cases of scamming in Cambodia, but to say they are large or the largest seems wrong. What are the indicators they are using to back up their claims? The results of the report sound intentional and politically motivated. It may be an attempt to defame Cambodia on the international stage by certain countries.

“Cambodia has been working closely with the international community and several foreign nations, although more may need to be done against this issue. In addition, the Kingdom needs to highlight their efforts, showing real figures, and hit back at reports which are published with a hidden agenda,” he said. 

He also urged the public to share positive news about Cambodia, rather than selectively offer only negative ones, noting that such stories fuelled some people’s poor perceptions of the Kingdom.

Touch Sokhak, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, said he had observed that some countries and NGOs which appear to have a hidden agenda have attempted to shine a spotlight on Cambodia.

He suggested that these NGOs or countries may be trying to apply political pressure to support their own interests.

“A report like the one that was just published is not scientific, but clearly politically motivated, whether for political or economic purposes. Cambodia is not playing host to widespread crimes or online scamming. It is the victims of more technologically advanced nations with widespread online gambling, and some of these operations may have spread here.

Sokhak acknowledged that some criminals could have fled from other places to continue their illegal activities in the Kingdom.

“Cambodia is not a peaceful place where criminals find it easy to carry out crimes like scamming, as the report alleged,” he said highlighting strict law enforcement measures such as arrests and the deportation of foreign suspects and victims to their home countries. 

“Alleging that Cambodia is one of the largest scamming hosts in the region is a slander which is spurred by a political agenda. It is not a constructive report. It offered no useful suggestions, and the authors clearly have no intention of cooperating to crack down on the crimes they allege,” he said.

Sokhak explained that the government has established a special force to combat online scamming operations, with several large busts taking place in Preah Sihanouk province recently, involving suspects from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. 

“This does not mean that Cambodia is hosting scamming operations across the country, as they suggested,” he said.

“I think if the producers of the report honestly wished to resolve any issues, they would offer to work closely with each of the countries they mentioned and provide them with support,” he added.

Sokhak explained that one way to combat this issue is to raise awareness among the countries where the victims are from, so they will recognise the criminal’s schemes and avoid being scammed, including encouraging strict law enforcement.

“This issue needs to be resolved jointly. No one should point the finger at a particular country, especially not in exchange for special conditions, economic or political gains or benefits in terms of tourism and trade,” he said.