Prime Minister Hun Sen has issued a new sub-decree raising the minimum donation required to receive the honorific title “oknha” from $100,000 to $500,000.
The decree, dated March 20 and published by pro-government media outlet Fresh News on Saturday, sets out that for “generous people who donate cash or objects of a value of more than $500,000 to the state”, the government would request the King grant them the title, which roughly translates to “tycoon” and is often conferred on elites with ties to the ruling party.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment on the sub-decree yesterday, saying he did not know about the amendment, except that it came from the Ministry of Finance and Economics. The latter could not be reached yesterday.
Association for Small and Medium Enterprises of Cambodia president Te Taing Por, an oknha since 2001, said there were about 700 oknhas now – compared to about five before 1975. He explained that, to receive the title, a request had to be approved by the Council of Ministers, then the prime minister and then signed by the King.
Mengly Quach, CEO of an eponymous university and school, received the title in 2009, and acknowledged that the old threshold of $100,000 in donations was too low today, requiring an increase. But he stressed that “the real generous people who want to help the country do not need to gain oknha titles in return”.
Policy analyst Sophal Ear yesterday agreed, saying that while “there’s no real list of benefits” that came with the title, “it’s pay to play”.
“[It’s] about access and reaching into networks,” he added.
Currently, he said in an email, there is no assessment for whether donated money went to good causes. Moreover, he said current oknhas were benefiting from the reassessment, since their “original investment of $100k is suddenly worth $500k tomorrow”.
San Chey, director of the NGO ANSA-Cambodia, said that the titles should be rewarded according to behaviour, and scrutinised by an evaluation committee. “If they have a bad reputation, they should not be granted the oknha title.”
Indeed, many oknhas have been implicated in scandals in recent years. One, Sok Bun, was caught on CCTV savagely beating a female TV personality in a restaurant. Another, Thong Sarath, is the suspected mastermind of the murder of fellow oknha and business rival Ung Meng Cheu.
Transparency International director Preap Kol said in an email that the “very prestigious” title had been increasingly monetised. “If someone enriches himself or herself from illegal, harmful, dirty or corrupt business, he or she can then afford to contribute $500,000 or more to get this title . . . this could make the wrong impression,” he said.