Dramatic Escape at Koh Thom Casino Triggers Gov’t Denial

9 min read
A sign labeled “Golden Phoenix Entertainment City” outside the Pacific Real Estate building in Kandal province’s Sampov Puon commune on August 18, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
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CORRECTED Aug. 20—In an apparent mass escape, dozens of people rushed through the gates of a border casino compound in Kandal’s Koh Thom district on Thursday morning, jumped into the Binh Di river and swam to Vietnam. 

The dramatic scenes were captured in a minute-long video published on a local Cambodian news outlet on Thursday afternoon, with another video emerging later in the day showing the incident from the Vietnamese side of the border. The first video shows a group of people rushing past security guards at the gates of a fenced-off building and then jumping into the river in Koh Thom’s Sampov Puon commune. Men in black clothing pursued the escapees, slashing at them with long metal poles.

A video of the apparent escape at the Koh Thom casino on August 18, 2022. (Supplied by SH News 24h)

The second video, seemingly shot from the Vietnamese side, shows people rushing down an embankment and jumping into the river. They can be seen swimming across the river and men standing on the Cambodian side watching them.

Vietnamese authorities responded to the escape attempt around 10 a.m., saying a total of 42 people of unclear nationality had attempted to escape the Cambodian casino company. Vietnamese news outlet Zing News reported 40 people were brought to a community center in An Giang province’s An Phu district. Authorities are searching for one missing victim, a 16-year-old, and another person was caught by what appeared to be casino guards. 

The group of escapees told Vietnamese authorities they had been working extended hours and without pay, matching accounts of other workers forcibly detained inside Cambodia’s scam industry. The case will be reviewed by An Giang Provincial Police for suspected human trafficking, Zing said.

VOD reporters reached the location late Thursday afternoon and identified the building as Pacific Real Estate, registered under the name Tai Ping Yang Fang Di Chan Wu Ye Guan Li. A Google Maps pin for the location is named “Rich World” and a sign near the building called it “Golden Phoenix Entertainment City.”

Cambodian officials, including Interior Minister Sar Kheng, have been quick to address the development — much unlike previously displayed lethargy in dealing with suspected cases of trafficking and forced labor at scam operations across the country

When reporters reached the casino building on Thursday evening, dozens of onlookers lingered at the nearby riverside pathway. About five men dressed in camouflage milled among the crowd of people and a dozen security guards with walkie-talkies paced in front of the casino’s gates.

On the Vietnamese side of the river, a rescue boat was docked at the riverbank, and over 50 people crowded in front of a house looking at the river and the casino complex on the Cambodian side. 

Security guards stationed at the casino warned residents not to take pictures of the river or the compound, and a guard forced one rights group worker to delete a photo he took of the building. 

One of the men wearing camouflage said company security guards had recaptured one person during the escape. The man added that the recaptured person “was beaten nearly to death” by company guards. 

A Cambodian teenager described the guards as threatening: “We do not dare to get close to the compound since we are afraid they would get confused and beat us up like other people.”

When a reporter asked for details of the escape, another man dressed in camouflage directed queries to Hing Bun Heang, who is in charge of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit. 

A Cambodian man, who said he worked in the Pacific Real Estate building, said local workers were permitted to enter and exit the building, but the foreigners were not allowed to leave.

He added that the foreigners had made previous attempts to leave the compound.

“They have escaped infrequently but before it was just one [person] escaping at a time, and mostly they escaped by jumping over the fence, but this time they escaped through the gate … it is infrequent.”

He said there were a lot of people inside the building, all doing online work, and that the business has operated for four years. 

A map of Pacific Real Estate, which is registered as Tai Ping Yang Fang Di Chan Wu Ye Guan Li, in Kandal province’s Koh Thom district, Sampov Puon commune. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

However, Kandal deputy provincial governor Kruy Malen said that Pacific Real Estate was not detaining people and was paying its workers’ properly. He claimed the workers broke out of the building to “avoid responsibility of their work” and gambling debts.

“This case has not occurred like the media has reported it, and people have suspected that [the company] detains people. Incidents have occurred because the staff have worked at the casino for long, have proper salaries and bonuses but they bet it on gambling,” Malen said. “Some win while some lose so that they are indebted and they avoided responsibility, and it was not like what [the media and residents] said.”

He added that authorities were still questioning company management but that all workers had proper documentation for working. When asked if Pacific Real Estate’s management was detained during the investigation, he said there was no need to. 

“There is no detention since there are not any illegal activities and the casino is legitimate and licensed … so there is not any detention or arrests of representatives or owners as they have not run away.”

Kandal governor Kong Sophorn also visited the compound on Friday morning according to a post from on the provincial administration’s Facebook page. 

The post said the company “abides by the proper business licenses [regulations],” adding that “company employees should work properly and are not allowed to use drugs, not force people [to work] or detain people illegally.”

Sampov Puon commune police chief Khuth Bunthon acknowledged that people tried to escape the casino on Thursday, “but I do not dare to speak. Please talk to the district police chief.” 

The Kandal provincial police chief Chhoeun Sochet could not be reached for comment, nor could reporters reach Sampov Puon commune chief Ouk Sron. Sochet told Fresh News that the workers had planned the escape and injured three security guards.

Tai Ping Yang was registered in 2021 and has only one active director, Hum Sovanny, who owns three other companies including a restaurant, a massage parlor and a financial firm called Bao Yu Aomen Capital Advisory. Tai Ping Yang has two former directors, Cheang Channa and Xia Bing, who could not immediately be identified. 

The company could not immediately be reached on its listed phone number. 

Up until last June, the compound was owned by Jinsha Group, a casino group invested by Liu Yang, who is also the current chair of the China Commerce in Cambodia Association (CCCA). In an announcement of a separate investment made last August, Jinsha claimed the business interests sold to Tai Ping Yang did not contribute much to Cambodia’s development or people’s livelihoods.

CCCA was originally the main backer behind the China-Cambodia Charity Team that assisted trafficking victim rescues. The charity team’s efforts petered off after the arrest of team leader Chen Baorong in March. 

Interior Minister Sar Kheng spoke to reporters after a human trafficking review meeting on Friday, and said he was aware of the case in Koh Thom district and authorities were investigating.

“I have no clear evidence yet but primary reporting [shows] that they might have come to work illegally and promised to give a salary, but the paying salary was not like the promise and this was a mistake, but we have worked on it.”

Kheng also mentioned the case was being investigated as part of his ministry’s attempt to inspect foreigners, a new policy announced earlier this month in response to Cambodia being downgraded in a U.S. State Department’s global trafficking report. 

He also referenced a case the government recently investigated in Preah Sihanouk province, referencing Cambodian-American and Indonesian workers, but did not provide details. 

“When we went down there, some situations were not fully true but some were also true, so we have rescued and firstly our mission is to rescue victims and secondly to arrest the mastermind and bring to justice and punish in compliance with the law,” he told reporters.

Corrected Aug. 20, 11:36 a.m.: The workers attempted to escape the casino company by crossing the Binh Di river into Vietnam. The original article misspelled the river’s name.

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