By Jack Adamović Davies
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cuban counterpart, Manuel Marrero Cruz, agreed this week after meeting in Phnom Penh to forge closer ties between their two countries, signing pledges to cooperate on areas related to culture and sports.
Two years ago, a key member of Hun Sen’s inner circle was forging his own links to the island nation through a secretive deal to purchase a stake in the Cuban state tobacco company, according to two sources familiar with the matter and corporate records.
Chen Zhi, who was born in China but granted citizenship in Cambodia in 2014, is the founder of Prince Group of companies, one of the largest and most influential conglomerates in the Kingdom. It has interest in real estate, banking, finance, tourism and food and beverage companies among other businesses.
Chen has been equally adept at navigating Cambodia’s political world, spending three years as an unpaid adviser to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, according to a 2017 announcement in the royal gazette. In October 2020, Hun Sen appointed Chen to be his own counselor with a rank equal to minister. The next year, in March, the Prince Group announced a $3 million donation to Cambodia to help it fight the pandemic.
The same month that Chen ascended to become Hun Sen’s adviser, Imperial Brands, a U.K.-based tobacco company that includes the cigarette brand Winston, sold its 50 percent stake in Habanos S.A., a Havana-based company that distributes brands like Montecristo and Cohiba cigars, for €1.225 billion ($1.44 billion) to a secretive consortium of investors . Cuba’s state-owned tobacco company Cubatabaco owns the other half of Habanos.
While the buyers had sought to remain anonymous, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told RFA that Chen was one of the investors who purchased a piece of Habanos.
“Chen Zhi bought the company over a year and a half ago, but that was kept secret,” a regional tobacco industry professional told RFA, asking for anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Another individual with knowledge of Chen’s business dealings at the time of the deal told RFA that he was involved in the takeover. RFA’s source also named Hong Kong-listed casino operator Suncity Group Holdings as among the buyers of Habanos. Suncity’s billionaire CEO, Alvin Chau, was arrested in Macau last November following an investigation into illegal online gambling operations and money laundering. Chau pleaded not guilty to all charges as his trial commenced last month.
“It’s owned by Chen Zhi and Suncity,” the second source told RFA, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Suncity’s links to the deal were previously reported in May 2020 byBloomberg, which noted that the group’s chief financial officer, Chiu King-yan, was listed as a director of the Hong Kong-registered Allied Cigar Corp.
Allied was in turn the sole shareholder of a Spanish firm called Allied Cigar Corporation SL, which was set to take control of Imperial Brands’ half of Habanos, the joint venture with the Cuban government.
Suncity denied to Bloomberg it had anything to do with the deal.
In November 2020, control of the Allied Cigar Corporation SL shifted to Asia Uni Corp., Spanish corporate records show. Asia Uni Corp.’s latest annual report shows its shares are held by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
The BVI’s stringent corporate secrecy laws make it hard to know the precise makeup of Asia Uni Corp.’s ownership. But a list of the company’s directors on the same annual return shows a connection to Chen.
Among the company’s five directors is Qiu Wei Ren, a Cambodian citizen and director of companies owned by Chen in Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Like Chen, Qiu was born in China but has become a naturalized Cambodian. The pair were both awarded medals by the Cambodian king in 2020 alongside a roster of other Prince Group executives, according to the royal gazette, which publishes government decisions in Cambodia.
Holiday in Havana
Chen can be seen at the banquet Hun Sen threw this week in Phnom Penh welcoming Cruz to Cambodia in a photograph posted on the longtime Cambodian strongman’s Facebook page.
Chen was also by Hun Sen’s side when, after he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the prime minister flew to Cuba on a Boeing business jet owned by controversial Chinese-businessman-turned-Cambodian-diplomat Wang Yaohui, according to an affidavit submitted to a Singapore court by one of Wang’s most trusted lieutenants. Wang has been the subject of recent investigative reports by RFA exploring his murky past in China and Africa and his rebirth in Cambodia, where he has sought legitimacy through political ties and secretive investments in a British soccer club.
Photographs that were also posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page show Chen among the entourage that met with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and National Assembly President Esteban Lazo Hernández.
A press release on the Cuban National Assembly’s website also notes that Chen was present in his capacity as an adviser to Hun Sen.
Prince Group’s chief communications officer, Gabriel Tan, asked RFA to direct any questions to the company’s PR agency Hill and Knowlton, which had not responded at the time of publication.