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Life's a lottery - a Phnom Penh family's story

Life's a lottery - a Phnom Penh family's story

In the first of a three-part series on the life of a Khmer family in Phnom Penh,

John C. Brown looks at the working life of the family's main - if only some-time

- money-maker. This series is about small corners of family life in today's Phnom

Penh (with names changed). This family is not necessarily typical, except in the

sense of the wider social realities embedded in Phnom Penh.

It is any night of the week, any week of the past year. The sun is setting outside,

and the room is lit by two fluorescent tubes. Three men are bent over a single desk,

setting out the day's transactions in minute and multi-colored detail. They transfer

figures from numerous slips of paper into three separate ledgers, and then consolidate

them into smaller summary figures - the final aim is to achieve the clarity of two

single numbers: potential gain and potential loss.

There is a tension in the air, a desperate tension that has grown over the past few

weeks. These men don't yet know whether the hemorrhage of money that started at the

barang New Year will continue for another night.

Like the Tonle Sap, the flow could reverse in a single night, and that is their hope.

But whether it will is up to Lady Luck; they are only her accountants. The numbers

they have, they have assembled with care, but missing still are those last digits

which will determine on which side of zero the day's earnings will fall. At the end

of every night Lady Luck has the last word, and she has treated them badly for the

past month.

The three, the desk, the piles of betting slips, a container with dozens of red,

blue and black pens, their Casio business calculators, the paper-work and account

books stacked and scattered across the desk-top are located in a second floor apartment

over an alley way near Psar Thmei.

Downstairs and around the corner is Samnang's ground floor, corner flat, where his

wife, four sisters-in-law, and ten children live. Dinner waits there. But first,

Samnang has work to do and - hopefully - money to be made.

In the narrow and darkening alley below, the day-time vendors of rice porridge, fruit

cakes and noodles are packing up, or have already left, one of Samnang's sister-in-laws

among them.

As they go, they take care to roll up their awnings. There has been a rash of vandalism

lately. Awnings have been slit and punctured. The culprits are known, but nothing

can be done. As they depart, the night crew of dessert and fruit shake sellers are

setting up. A ground-floor snooker shop across the alley has been open all day, and

will keep its young customers entertained until well past eleven. Around the corner

a newly opened video game parlor makes its own contribution to the din.

Over-laying all the noise are the shouts and the revving motor-cycles of a group

of young men who begin to gather below at the T-intersection alley-way directly under

the apartment's small balcony. For the past four years, here is where they drink

and argue, and sometimes fight among themselves. It is also where a Vietnamese girl

was murdered, one hot afternoon about a year ago.

Tonight, the gang of people in the alley already sound drunk, but the three men in

the room above don't appear to notice. A fan creaks slowly over-head, stirring the

sluggish air marginally, as they labor over the numbers. Of the three, Samnang is

the oldest: aged 45, short, thickening comfortably into middle age, his hair still

jet black. He and his wife own the second-floor apartment where they work.

With him is his nephew Piap from Siem Reap and a young neighbor. The nephew works

because he is family, not because he is clever, though he is, extremely so. The neighbor

works because he is paid, and Samnang needs the help.

Samnang's life is a lottery. He's a professional 'bet backer' - his job is to put

up the capital, and take most of the risk, to accept hundreds of bets placed by Phnom

Penh punters every day.

Today, he has accepted more than three and a half million riels worth of bets - face

value. If any of these bets wins, he will have to pay out 70 times each bet's face

value. If no one wins, he will make close to 2,750,000 riels (about $1000). The nightly

question is: how many bets will he have to pay off. One winner in a hundred bets

and Samnang makes nothing, but loses nothing. Two winners or more for every hundred

bets and his losses begin to pile up.

Samnang reckons there are perhaps two hundred bet backers in Phnom Penh. Their activity

is based on - but twice-removed from - the official Cambodia Lottery.

Many gamblers avoid the Cambodia Lottery and place their bets instead with neighborhood

bet collectors who act as middleman between them and someone like Samnang who is

willing to back the bets for a percentage.

The bettors try to guess the two, three, and four digit numbers produced by the Cambodia

Lottery every day. They don't pay face value for their bets, but a percentage - as

low as 72 percent and as high as 85 percent. The percentage depends on the their

relationship with their middleman and the volume of their betting.

The middleman takes a slice of the bet as a commission and then buys the services

of a bet backer with the remaining money. The bet backer usually gets about 70 percent

of the bet's face value.

The Cambodia Lottery can't compete. It is not only a question of the money, though

bets with the Cambodian Lottery are more expensive. It is a question, one senses,

of trust. One bettor's opinion was, "If you bet with the Cambodia Lottery, you

might as well just give them the money."

In this micro-triad, the middleman is in the strongest position to make consistent

cash, getting a percentage of every bet. The bettor is in the worst situation, though

better than if he placed his bet with the Cambodian Lottery. Samnang falls in between

- for most of the bets that he backs, he should expect to make nothing, and his long-run

expectation is zero. But runs of good luck are possible, and that's what he counts


It hardly seems to be a rational basis on which to expect to feed your family.

But Samnang is optimistic and not about to quit the job. Two years ago he was engaged

in a prosperous but small business, illegally selling logs to Thai businessmen from

somewhere in Kompong Som. He paid off some Khmer Rouge who lived where he kept his

trucks, saws, and a bulldozer, he says.

As the government tightened its control over logging he was squeezed out. Previously

he relied upon lower level government officials for protection, at a reasonable price.

Now those officials - with controls on logging being centralized at higher and higher

levels - have lost their clout. From what he can tell, illegal logging continues,

but in the hands of bigger operations who can generate the pay-off now needed for

protection. He couldn't compete, so he sold everything and looked for a new way to

make money. He became a bet backer.

Tonight, as he pours over hundreds of narrow betting slips, the noises of a fight

rise from the alley below. Drunken shouts turn angry. A bottle breaks. Two young

men in stiff stances glare at each other, surrounded by the others. Moments later,

everything seems settled, at least quieter.

Neighbors say that sometimes the guys who hang out in the alley are followed into

it by members of other "gangs" after confrontations at one of the local

night clubs. There are two possible results - a negotiated truce or a fight. Once,

an ice saw was used by attackers. The group also regularly fights within itself,

and dust-ups are usually settled by its leader. Losers have been known to cry, sobbing

drunkenly, as they beg their "older brother" to explain why they have been


Even when not drunk and not angry, their talk is clear and very loud, amplified by

the alley way's narrow walls. One imagines everyone in the neighborhood lying awake

listening, unable to slip off to sleep. Samnang says one night he heard one young

man accuse another of being involved in the rape of a French girl.

Neighbors have learned to pass by with down-cast eyes - looking at the young men

caught up in their fury is likely to be taken as a provocation. Who are they? Neak

leeng (playboys) some say. More ominously, others say that they are neak jeung bow,

self-appointed protectors, enforcers, thugs for hire. Neighbors say the group has

about 120 members: police, soldiers, bodyguards, the sons of rich families, and young

men with no work and no money. Locals think that they have a high-level protector,

but no one claims to know for sure. Their evidence is that anytime a member of the

gang is arrested they are quickly released. Their lives appear to be motivated by

the simple pursuit of pleasure, their only obvious constraint the need to earn money.

So if you want someone beaten or a business damaged, some say, they are available.

The price? About $25. Some of Samnang's neighbors say they know of people who have

been attacked; most say it is something they have heard of second-hand. But the neighbors

are not about to challenge the nightly carousing in the alley; they know there is

little they can do.

Although, sometimes, on a dark night, partial revenge is sought. From a second or

third story balcony, the group is targeted with a bucket of water. Shouts erupt,

and sometimes shots - some of these young men carry guns. But in the dark their silent

attacker has slipped back from view. And who is to say which balcony he came from?

Water is one thing, but no-one ever tosses a rock or fires a gun down on them.

As for the Vietnamese girl who lost her life here, it was just her luck to be walking

up that alley when the young men were drunk. One or two of the men grabbed her breast(s)

for a squeeze. She escaped, returning with a family member, either her father or

brother, to confront them. Her relative supposedly had a handgun, the girl, a rock.

There was a scuffle, the gun was knocked to the ground. The Vietnamese man, brother

or father, fled. The young girl had already thrown her rock, and the gang knocked

her to the ground. Eye-witnesses say she disappeared from view within a crowd of

enraged and drunken young men, who helped each other kick her to death.

Her family retrieved her body later that night. The young men gathered again the

next night, as usual. As they have tonight. The police investigated, but no one would

say anything. The matter, like the girl, died.

Mit walks into the room, as he does every night. By local standards, he is a heavy

bettor - sometimes hundreds of dollars a day, his betting scattered over hundreds

of numbers, and numerous bet backers. Tonight he is Lady Luck's messenger. He brings

with him a dozen photo-copies of the Cambodia Lottery numbers which have just been


Samnang, Piap and the young neighbor move quickly, making the final determination

of loss or gain. It is the work of five minutes.

A quick survey of two ledgers show that a total of two million riel (about $740)

will have to paid out for winning bets. But more people have lost - Samnang will

make about 600,000 riel (about $220) profit for the night's work; the tide has indeed

turned. Lost somewhere in the resulting good humor is the fact that over the past

four months they have lost a total of $600.

Outside, there is a sudden shot; a bottle smashes against the wall. Though hungry,

they decide to wait a little longer to go out to the main road, and to Samnang's

home where they will share dinner. Samnang's wife and kids will have to wait a little

longer. In any case there is a little work left to do.

The betting slips are rolled up, wrapped in a ledger with a copy of the winning numbers,

and secured with a rubber band. Another copy of the winning numbers is placed on

top of others already affixed to the wall. The ledgers are stacked away neatly, the

Casios and the white-out find their place in a drawer, the plastic container of red,

blue, and black pens locked inside the desk.

Getting started again tomorrow will not be difficult. Everything is in order, everything

- well almost everything - is under control.

Tomorrow Samnang will face a different kind of lottery. He will be going to court

- in a case against his own four sisters-in-law - because of a dispute over his house.

The case has been dragging on; it may finally be decided.

He walks to the balcony and glances down to see if it is safe to leave.


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