The Most Powerful American In Cambodia: The Unlikely Rise Of Bretton Sciaroni
Bretton Sciaroni came to Cambodia in 1993, the year of its first democratic election after more than two decades of tumultuous rule by the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime, the Khmer Rouge, and then a Vietnamese occupation force. It was a second chance for a country that had only gained independence from France in 1953, and a second chance for Sciaroni.
In 1987, at age 35, the American lawyer had seen his career very publicly blow up after a seemingly meteoritic rise to the Reagan White House. He had been hired as counsel for the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, but his luck ran out when he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra Affair that rocked the last years of the Reagan administration.
After facing a public whipping in the U.S. press when it was revealed he had failed the bar exam four times, it is perhaps unsurprising that he agreed to an unlikely job in a war-torn country halfway around the word several years later. On the suggestion of Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman in California, the one-time Reaganite was now ironically tasked with helping the formerly communist Cambodian People’s Party run its first campaign as a modern political party.
“When I arrived out here, it was a single male-only posting. There were no hospitals, no schools. It was the Wild West in those days. Every cop on the street corner had an AK-47,” Sciaroni said of his early days in Phnom Penh during an interview at his office earlier this summer.
What was meant to be a short term stint would instead set Sciaroni, now in his 60s, on the path to become one of the most powerful American expatriates in Cambodia with the help of his influential law firm, Sciaroni and Associates. He also maintains deep ties with the foreign business community as the head of the American Chamber of Commerce and the International Business Club, and has been a “Legal Adviser to the Royal Government of Cambodia” since 1995 – which carries a rank equivalent to government minister.
Sciaroni is in the words of the current U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, William A. Heidt, a central figure in Phnom Penh’s foreign community: “Brett Sciaroni was one of the first foreign lawyers in Cambodia in the early 1990s, after Cambodian democracy was restored. He has been a pillar of the U.S. business community ever since, promoting U.S. investment in Cambodia through his law firm and in his role as the founder and head of the American Chamber of Commerce,” Heidt said in a statement by email.
One of the most common misconceptions about Sciaroni, at least in Phnom Penh circles, is that in his 23 years in Cambodia he is the “lawyer“ (and presumably “friend”) of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who also heads the Cambodian People’s Party. By Sciaroni’s admission they sound closer to acquaintances, who have worked for the same party but not closely together.
“I view him as the key transitional figure for Cambodia because he’s trying to bridge the gap between the old way of doing things and entry into the modern world. He is a manger of a system of interests, and it’s his job to keep everybody moving more or less in the same direction,” Sciaroni said. “So you have political factions, economic factions, regional factions. And his job is to keep everybody on the same page more or less, and that’s not an easy job for a country like this.”
Sciaroni and Hun Sen – who he calls a “fascinating guy” – have more in common than meets the eye. Born approximately a year apart, albeit in very different circumstances, they have both made their careers out of their political staying power and the ability to reinvent themselves.
As a former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen has had the unique ability to change with the times and survive. He defected to Vietnam during a period of internal purges in the Khmer Rouge in 1977, and was subsequently appointed to head the Vietnamese-backed regime in 1985 during its ten-year occupation of Cambodia. Since then, Hun Sen has reinvented himself yet again as a “modern democratic leader” in the 1990s – some would say a politically repressive autocrat – and is now best known for his love of golf and Facebook.
Sciaroni has also transformed himself from a low-point in the late 1980s into a modern-day legal powerhouse. In 1987, a Congressional investigation found Sciaroni had written the classified legal opinion justifying the funding of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras by the U.S. National Security Committee – despite a Congressional ban – with profits from weapon sales to arch-enemy Iran. He was subsequently pilloried by the American press but he still speaks favourably of his time at the White House and President Reagan, who he describes as an “inspirational figure.”
“I have no regrets at all. I was under fire because there were people on Capitol Hill who didn’t like my legal opinion. It wasn’t like I was under scrutiny for having done anything wrong, it was just – for the Democrats on the Hill – politically incorrect to write what I wrote,” he said.
The irony of an ex-Reaganite working with former communists was not lost on Sciaroni, although he personally found many former members of the Khmer Rouge to be more pragmatic than political by the 1990s. “They say, and I do believe, they weren’t communist by conviction, they were communist by circumstance. That’s why after the Vietnamese left in the late 1980s, this place changed very rapidly into a free market economy. There weren’t a lot of very dedicated communists,” Sciaroni said of the Cambodian People’s Party.
“When I came here, I used to go to party official’s offices, and in those days the bookshelves were full of Marx, Lenin, Engels. But I will bet you, if I took any volume off the shelf, I would have broken the back of the book. It probably had never been opened. These people were survivors, and they went with the Vietnamese not out of conviction but because they had to survive,” he added later.
While the CPP lost the 1993 election – despite its alleged use of death squads against political opponents – Sciaroni stayed on in Cambodia and founded his own law firm, Sciaroni and Associates. As a lawyer working with the Cambodian government, he helped it to recover assets frozen in the U.S. during the Khmer Rouge regime as well as draft some of Cambodia’s first laws on finance, according to his biography on Sciaroni and Associates’ website. He also advised Cambodia’s delegation to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which finally succeeded in inscribing the Angkor-era Preah Vihear Temple as a world heritage site. (The temple was also claimed by Thailand and the subject of a long-running legal dispute starting in 1959.)
In the private sector, Sciaroni’s firm has also advised U.S. and international business interests entering the Cambodian market. Sciaroni kept mum on which companies he helped, although a 2011 profile of Sciaroni on Salon.com claims they include Chevron, Mistubishi, Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, and Anglo-Australian mining multinational BHP Billiton.
“I do quite a bit of informal advice or advice wearing my AmCham hat. For market entry, they need to know not just the legal requirements, but they need to understand something about how the economy works,” Sciaroni said. He also continues to work with the U.S. Embassy on business-related issues, and says they are “both keen on getting Cambodia to commit to a bilateral investment treaty” as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
These days, Sciaroni is a fixture at Phnom Penh business gatherings. He is easy to spot with his trademark mustache, retro gold-rimmed glasses, and a flashy gold bracelet. He is typically surrounded by an entourage of associates and individuals hoping to speak with him. Name-dropping Sciaroni prompts instant recognition in business circles, and he maintains a close relationship with the U.S. Embassy. He has pivoted once again, into what may become his final role, as an elder-statesman of Cambodia’s business community.