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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Money can't buy you a King's respect, but it's a sure path to Royal honors

Money can't buy you a King's respect, but it's a sure path to Royal honors


February 20 was quite a day for Chhorn Thary. In recognition of his efforts to help

reconstruct the country, a Royal decree conferred on him the title Okhna, an honor

associated with the country's powerful business elite.

Okhna Mong Reththyís resplendent headquarters in Phnom Penh. Despite $2.9 million of the $3.8 million he has given Cambodia going through Hun Sen, Reththy says his donations have not earned him special status.

But the title has a different origin: It was initially bestowed on senior mandarins

of Cambodia's Royal Court, beginning around the 16th century. Historians say it was

given to the leading class known in Khmer as namoeun to differentiate them from the

people, or reas.

Most ministers were also holders of the title, and eventually in the 19th century

administrative officials and governors earned it by distinguished service to the

Kingdom.

While only a limited number had received the title by the early 1990s, Chhorn Thary

- whoever he may be - got his by handing over cash to the government. Thanks to a

1993 subdecree, citizens who wish to earn the title can donate a little over $100,000.

The money is meant to go towards construction projects such as roads, pagodas or

schools.

The owner of Poipet's Golden Crown Club Casino, Kok An, has been an Okhna since 1994.

He says he received the title after he went to see King Sihanouk in Beijing on behalf

of Senate President Chea Sim. He thinks it has something to do with a series of schools

he had built.

"Maybe I'm the first person who got the title Okhna," he says.

Chhorn Thary is not nearly as prominent as Kok An, who is linked to the ruling Cambodian

People's Party (CPP), not to mention those who held that rank in the past.

Officials at the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce and the Cambodia Federation of Employers

and Business Associations say they don't know who he is. Neither for that matter

does Nady Tan, the secretary-general at the Council of Ministers (CoM), even though

Tan chairs the committee that okays the title.

On that same February day that Chhorn Thary was freshly-minted as an Okhna, King

Norodom Sihanouk's mysterious penfriend, Ruom Ritt, spoke out against the country's

title mill.

Ritt, who is either a man who keenly follows Cambodian affairs from his base in France's

Pyrénées Mountains or the Monarch's nom de plume, wrote in his letter

to the King that the value of Royal titles has been greatly diminished.

"To speak (briefly) about Royal decrees, Your Majesty has had to, must and will

have to sign, each year, each month, each week an incredible number of Royal decrees

left right and center to name new Excellencies, new Okhnas, new Generals ...,"

says Ritt.

Ritt's recent letters posted in the Bulletin Mensuel de Documentation (BMD) - the

King's monthly publication that compiles official correspondence and annotated press

clippings - assert that honors are for sale on the cheap in the Kingdom.

Ritt has taken to calling one of the highest medals of achievement in the land, La

plaque de Grand Croix de l'Ordre Royal du Cambodge, 'the casserole'.

The King weighed into the issue in his March 4-5 response to Ritt's questions. He

asks: "How can we explain (without in any way accusing them of corruption or

stealing goods from the State) that these (honorable and sympathetic) Leaders and

cadres of the CPP have become now extremely rich and possess the majority of materials...?"

He then ventures some answers. Innumerable foreigners and Khmers who want the Grand

Croix can get it by paying $300,000 to the government, he says. But under Sihanouk's

1960s government, known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (SRN), only three men possessed

the country's equivalent of the Legion of Honor.

"In calculating the sums in hard currency disbursed (always with a smile) by

these excellent 'payers' for these thousands and thousands of decorations, we arrive

at an astronomical number which explains why our 'Regime' actually could compete

(seriously and really) with Preah Jayavarman VII," the King responded to Ritt.

"In the time of the SRN, the OKHNAs were, in all and for all, less than ten.

They did not pay anything to anyone to get named, by Royal decree, Okhna."

Constitutional Council member Son Soubert says that under law the King must issue

the decrees because they are proposed by the government. He agrees that Royal titles

have lost their meaning, and says that while the money is supposed to go to social

works, it usually goes to the CPP.

"It's a bit strange because in the 19th century it was a title for administrators,

but now it's someone who contributes money to government or political parties,"

says Soubert. "Presently if you're an Okhna it means you're rich."

So how many Okhnas are there? The Post managed to count 115. However one Palace source

says there are around 500, which could mean at least $50 million to government coffers.

No one at the Palace or in the CoM would provide a complete list of names.

"The person in charge of the list died and no one replaced him," says the

King's cabinet member, So Sidym, of the Palace's Okhna records.

The CoM's Nady Tan says he too doesn't have the list. To get the correct number of

Okhnas, he says, would require the CoM's administrative department to pore over documents

going back to 1993.

As the chairman of the CoM's decoration committee, Tan decides who should become

an Okhna or receive a national medal. For a decree to get issued, he says, the director

or owner of a project submits a request that a title be bestowed upon him.

Tan asserts it is a rigorous process in which a development project must be certified

by the council of communes to be worth over $100,000. The request then goes to the

subdistrict, then the district and up to the Ministry of Interior which passes it

to him.

Before sending his recommendation to the Prime Minister, Tan sometimes sends specialists

from the Department of Decorations to inspect the site. He adds that he always requires

a request for title to include a photograph of the project that may earn the funder

a Royal honor.

However Tan does not wish to comment on allegations that the system has been corrupted.

"The Constitution doesn't allow us to make any comments on the King," he

says.

But Tan does say the bearer of the title Okhna does not get elevated to the rank

of Excellency, which is how senior government officials are addressed. That contradicts

the King's letter to Ruom Ritt: in his March 4-5 response, the King asserts that

the swelling number of Okhnas all get the rank of Excellency while their spouses

become Lok Chumteav.

The Constitutional Council's Soubert disagrees with Tan and asserts that buying the

title does bring special privileges.

"The title itself gives you some social status. I think it's quite high - even

higher than His Excellency, if you refer to the past," says Soubert. He adds

that the only Okhnas he can think of who earned the title the traditional way are

Palace administrator Kong Samol and the Secretary-General of the Cambodian Red Cross,

Dr My Samedy.

And despite the burgeoning number of Okhnas, most Cambodians associate the title

with being rich and powerful. If those who bear the title do wield a great degree

of influence, it would contradict the government's stated desire to embrace free

market principles.

Foreign critics say the Okhna system is a way of creating a business elite that can

tap the government monopolies and buy influence. The result is that it could crowd

out true entrepreneurs and stifle the growth of the business community.

The Okhnas, naturally, disagree. Agribusiness kingpin Mong Reththy has had the title

for several years. He also has one Dignitary Medal of Mohasereywath, one Thapadin

national construction medal, ten gold medals for national construction, and two silver

medals for national construction.

"I didn't spend $100,000 like other people did," says Reththy. "I

spent more than three million dollars."

From his headquarters on Phnom Penh's Norodom Boulevard, Reththy faxed a list of

over 100 projects he spearheaded from 1990 to 2001, mostly schools, roads and pagoda

construction worth almost $3.8 million.

Despite the fact that $2.9 million went through Prime Minister Hun Sen himself, Reththy

says his donations have not earned him special status.

"By spending that I never looked for or wanted to get something else besides

contributing to the reduction of poverty with the Royal Government led by Samdech

Hun Sen," Reththy says.

"I never used the title Okhna that King Norodom Sihanouk signed and gave to

me on April 8, 1996 to improve my business capital. I didn't know that the title

of Okhna is legally equal to Excellency. To me, I think that the title of Okhna cannot

be used for business or to get benefits."

Kith Meng of the Royal Group, which co-owns MobiTel and numerous other businesses,

says he too was unaware that he was equal to an Excellency. He maintains that being

an Okhna has never helped his business. And like Reththy, he has kept giving long

after he got the gong.

"We contribute to poor people during floods and things like that. We help people

in need when there are unexpected natural disasters," he says. "We live

in a society where I think we need to help each other wherever we can."

Okhna Teng Boonma was alleged to have planned King Sihanoukís assassination in 1997 after the Kingís penfriend wrote of the ëpower of the Okhnas Ö super-rich mafias who finance handsomely certain strong-men and certain big political partiesí.

Meng says he has also received over 30 medals for national reconstruction efforts,

including the Dignitary Medal of Mohasereywath but does not think the pool of Okhnas

has been diluted by government title sales.

"I think everyone has their own contribution to make. The more Okhnas we have,

I think they can make more contributions to society," Meng says.

Sok Kong, the owner of the well-connected Sokimex Company and chairman of Phnom Penh's

Chamber of Commerce, says he spent over $1 million on government requests for infrastructure

like schools and bridges.

He is somewhat miffed that some people have garnered the title by paying only one-tenth

of that.

"This Okhna title is only for rich people who come to help the government in

the present, but poor people can also get the title Okhna," says Sok Kong, who

was awarded his in April 1995. "If a guy only has $100,000 and pays it to the

government, he no longer has money but has got the title."

The man whose company once had an extraordinary sweetheart deal for the Angkor Wat

concession that the International Monetary Fund insisted the government renegotiate

says he has 36 national construction medals, one medal of honor and one Dignitary

Medal of Mohasereywath. But he is quick to add that the rank does not carry special

privileges.

"Even if someone has the title Okhna, if they do something wrong, they will

face the court," says Sok Kong. "Okhnas and normal people are the same."

Meanwhile Sorn Sokna, vice-chairman at Sokimex and vice-president of the Phnom Penh

Chamber of Commerce, says he paid over $200,000 for construction projects, including

a school named Sar Kheng Secondary, to become an Okhna in March 2001. He agrees with

his boss that the title does not put him in an elite group.

"Okhna only shows that we contributed to society. We cannot use our titles to

get priority from the government to do our business," says Sokna. "This

title is honorary - like in Europe they have honorary [titles] like that."

Sokna says that $10,000 earns you one gold medal from the government, and he also

receives certificates for how much he spends. He states the donations are an ongoing

commitment.

"When the government announces there's a natural disaster, we help," he

says. "We don't look for anything for us."

But the Constitutional Council's Soubert despairs that administrative titles are

no longer based on merit. He sees a parallel between a change in the understanding

of Buddhism, where, he says, even some senior monks buy their titles, and the meaning

of the Royal awards.

"[In the past] you didn't have to give money to earn the title. You deserved

it by your actions, your service to the nation and so on. Not because you were rich,"

says Soubert.

He says it is also odd that foreigners are granted Royal titles now. Some were surprised

when it was revealed that the alleged spiritual leader of Taiwan's Bamboo Union Gang,

'Dry Duck' Chen Chi-li, who was acquitted in August 2001 of weapons charges, was

an Okhna and advisor to Chea Sim.

"I feel ashamed that I was granted decorations because now they have no value,"

says Soubert. "Before you would be proud when you got decorations because it

was recognition of value, but now what is the value?"

February 20 was not the first time the mysterious Ritt used one of his dispatches

to criticize Okhnas. Ritt emerged from a long absence in early January 2003. He had

been muzzled since May 1997 after he talked of the "power of the Okhnas ...

super-rich mafias who finance handsomely certain strong-men and certain big political

parties."

Soon after that letter was run, the Palace reportedly received death threats. Okhna

Teng Boonma was alleged to have hired men to assassinate King Sihanouk because of

Ritt's comments in the bulletin. Boonma is the owner of Thai Boon Rong Company, and

a man the US State Department has in the past accused of being "heavily involved"

in drug trafficking. Boonma denied that. After the 1997 coup, Boonma told the press

that he had given money to help Prime Minister Hun Sen.

When the Ritt column ceased in 1997, then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh

claimed to have seen the threats. He addressed the issue during a speech in Kampong

Speu.

"No, I am not using this opportunity to talk about Mr Teng Boonma," Ranariddh

said in 1997. "But the statements have named him clearly, and say that Mr Teng

Boonma has money and will assassinate His Majesty the King."

But perhaps all has since been forgiven. A Royal decree granted him the Dignitary

Medal of Moha Sena Class this past March 4, ten days before King Sihanouk went to

Beijing for medical treatment.

But the issue clearly still irks the King. In his March 4-5 response to his Pyrénées

correspondent, he seems to express some frustration that under the constitutional

monarchy he must apply his signature to every decree passed his way.

"These fabulously rich payers pay for national reconstruction, the development

of our country," the King wrote. "Since these reasons given in the reports

are 'serious', I can do nothing but sign the Royal decrees presented to the King."

The road to glory

Statement of donations by Mong Reththy contributed for national reconstruction by

himself or through PM Hun Sen

Source: Mong Reththy: signed and dated December 31, 2001.

 

US$

Takeo: agro-tourism center in Phnom Chiso

253,840

Takeo: for agro-tourism center project

238,120

Takeo: construction of rice mill at agro-tourism center

147,949

Takeo: flood assistance for 5,000 families (in 2000)

130,000

Sihanoukville: junior high school

100,000

Sihanoukville: dirt road, bridge, drainage

150,200

Sihanoukville: construction of dam

250,000

Sihanoukville: Okhna Mong Market

108,400

Sihanoukville: building houses for 260 families

112,500

Koh Kong: upgrade dirt road

105,000

108 other donations less than $100,000 each

2,179,956

Total

$3,775,965

 
 
Of which: Given to Hun Sen-supported projects

$2,928,597

Given to projects personally

$847,368

 

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