Southeast Asia links to Panama Papers – USA TODAY

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HO CHI MINH CITY — One of Asia’s richest families, the son of Malaysia’s corruption-tarred leader and Cambodia’s minister of justice — these are among names that surfaced this week in Southeast Asia in connection with the “Panama Papers” tax haven furor.

Thailand’s Chirathivats family operate the powerful Central Group of Companies, a conglomerate that owns an empire of shopping malls, resorts, restaurant chains, retail outlets and real estate developments in every major city in Thailand. The Chirathivats have an estimated wealth of $11.7 billion, according to Forbes, which makes them the third wealthiest in Thailand and the 14th richest in Asia.

According to financial records analyzed by USA TODAY, Tos Chirathivats, the American-educated chief executive of the Central Group of Companies, is listed as an officer in six different Nevada corporations set up by MF Nevada, one of the U.S. affiliates of Mossack Fonseca, the Panama law firm at the heart of the leak of millions of secretive documents related to offshore accounts.

Another six Nevada firms set up by MF Nevada on behalf of Mossack Fonseca, the records show, have officers who are either close relatives of Tos or people associated with the the Central Group of Companies. All the firms trace back to the same Bangkok addresses.

The Central Group of Companies has expanded across Southeast Asia and Europe in recent years. But it’s unclear why the family had Nevada holdings, which bear names such as Anir One and Consolidated International One, and typically shared two or more of the family members as officers. The identification of the officers of the companies, by name and address, was a rarity among the majority of the shell companies set up by MF Nevada for foreign interests, according to the USA TODAY analysis. Most of the corporate records listed business entities as officers, and hundreds traced back to the same handful of addresses that were the same as Mossack Fonseca offices in their respective countries. The Central Group of Companies did not return repeated requests for comment.

Thailand’s Anti Money Laundering Office announced Friday it was investigating 16 Thais who have been connected with the massive document leak. It did not name them.

In neighboring Malaysia, Mohd Nazifuddin Najib, the son of Prime Minister Najib Razak, was identified in the Mossack Fonseca data as director of two offshore companies. In 2009, Nazifuddin became co-director of Jay Marriot International, Ltd., and in 2012 he became co-director of PCJ International Venture Limited. Both companies were registered in the British Virgin Islands. 

Nazifuddin said in a Facebook post that he was no longer involved with either company and that no business transactions were made during the time when he was.

“It is common for certain parties to take advantage of the leaks as such that would imply wrong doings,” he wrote. “It comes to no surprise that these groups would politicize the matter as part of the usual attempts to launch a smear campaign.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been dogged by a scandal surrounding heavily indebted state investment fund 1MDB. He was investigated for allegedly moving $681 million from the government-owned fund to private bank accounts. While Malaysia’s attorney general cleared Najib of wrongdoing in January, saying the funds were a gift from the Saudi royal family, a just-concluded parliamentary investigation found extensive mismanagement of the 1MDB fund.

Cambodia’s Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana was also named in the files as one of five shareholders of a British Virgin Islands shell company, RCD International, Ltd.  A statement from Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice denied the minister’s connection to the shell company.

The leaks have brought greater scrutiny to Asia’s key financial centers, Hong Kong and Singapore, among the world’s largest offshore banking centers. Mossack Fonseca worked with 2,212 intermediaries and 37,675 clients in Hong Kong. In Singapore, Mossack Fonseca had 4,050 clients.

In a statement, Singapore’s ministry of finance said: “We are reviewing the information being reported in connection with the so-called Panama Papers and are doing the necessary checks. If there is evidence of wrongdoing by any individual or entity in Singapore, we will not hesitate to take firm action.”

Curtis S. Chin, former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said that in “all too many Asian nations, the Panama Papers simply confirm what many have long suspected.”

“It’s do as I say, not as I do. Political leaders say one thing, but behind closed doors and through secret accounts, it’s another story. Whether China or Malaysia, it’s not about whether someone had a shell company. The accounts may well all be legal. It’s about the hypocrisy.”

Southeast Asia links to Panama Papers – USA TODAY}

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