By mid-morning yesterday, a few hundred members of the state security forces were waiting patiently outside the gates of businesswoman Choeung Sopheap’s palatial villa in the capital’s Daun Penh district as the crash of cymbals accompanying a festive lion dance could be heard inside.
After firecrackers culminated the morning’s Lunar New Year festivities hosted by the Pheaphimex boss, guests soon began trickling into the street and riding off in their SUVs.
The atmosphere grew increasingly tense as the uniformed men continued to wait, gradually realising that the traditional Chinese New Year red packets stuffed with money – ang pao – that they had been expecting to receive were not going to be forthcoming as in previous years.
Some loudly blamed journalists present for the decision by Yeay Phu, as the ethnic-Chinese Sopheap is better known, and her senator-businessman husband Lao Meng Khin to not dole out cash.
“[We] are disappointed, because the people inside the house told us that there will be no ang pao, because many journalists are here to shoot the video and photos. I don’t know why she fears the journalists like that,” said Ly Va, a riot police officer who said he had received 50,000 riel ($12.50) from Yeay Phu in 2013.
A source close to the family who requested anonymity said that a decision had, in fact, been taken last year to no longer publicly dole out ang pao to security forces because of well-publicised accusations that the politically connected power couple linked to several land disputes, including the one at Boeung Kak lake, used the annual occasion to buy their support.
“We are absolutely disappointed [with this]. We have no choice but to not share the ang pao with state authorities who wear the uniforms of police, military police and the armed forces after the practice was criticised by the public,” the source said.
Although authorities have in the past condoned the practice, they also appear to have changed their tune.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said an announcement had been made disallowing soldiers or military police from receiving ang pao from businesspeople because “it affects our armed forces who serve the nation”. However, he said tycoons could still donate directly to military units – a practice that has been condemned by rights groups in the past.
But Va, the police officer, said the tradition provided a useful bonus for underpaid men like himself. He earns $150 a month.
“Because of our small salary, we come to get ang pao. Not only people like me with a small rank, but others of higher rank also come like beggars, and we are ashamed because we work with the government and we are wearing our uniforms,” he said.
But the disappointed rank-and-file did not have to travel far to get a few dollars. On the corner, some ang pao were reportedly handed out at the house of Kok An, a prominent businessman, CPP senator and adviser to Hun Sen.
At 11:30am, news spread that the nearby Cobra Gold KTV, allegedly owned by a senior customs official, was handing out cash and drinks, sending a swarm of soldiers running down the street.
A police officer who declined to be named said yesterday evening that he and hundreds of others returned to Yeay Phu’s house in the afternoon but were again unsuccessful.
Sok Sam Oeun, a human rights lawyer and activist, said that it appeared Sopheap and Meng Khin had realised that masses of soldiers and police officers gathering outside their homes to receive cash was not a good look.
But he echoed military spokesman Tito’s alternative that they could still donate to individual units.
“It’s not illegal, the law does not prohibit it,” he said.