Cambodia should examine the merit and sources of income of wealthy individuals before deciding to grant them ancient honorary titles, because many are involved in corrupt activities, political analysts said this week after Prime Minister Hun Sen set up a working group to manage the issue.
The title of “Oknha”— meaning nobleman or lord — is granted by royal decree to civilians who contribute at least U.S. $500,000 to Cambodia’s government.
Many who hold the title of nobility have amassed vast fortunes through successful business ventures in the Southeast Asian country. Some have used the coveted status to enable or cover up corruption, participate in sex scandals, and claim immunity from prosecution following the commission of crimes.
In the past, tycoons with the “Oknha” title have disgraced themselves in the eyes of ordinary Cambodians because they use their titles to protect their own interests instead of contributing to society, said outspoken political analyst Kim Sok who lives in Finland.
Some of them have engaged in land grabbing from the poor, illegal logging and sand dredging, the destruction of natural resources, and drug trafficking.
“This is a very bad example for our society,” he said. “This type of Oknha reflects very bad leadership. Now people say that the most illegitimate [leadership] role is that of the prime minister, and the worst title is that of Oknha with its declining values.”
Political analyst Meas Ny said the government should examine the sources of wealth of prominent individuals before they are given the title of Oknha to avoid accusations of conspiracy, given their history of dishonesty in business ventures.
“Let’s suppose that I acquire the title of Oknha, but I got my money through money laundering or I was involved in drug trafficking or illegal logging, and then I gave this money to the state to get the title of Oknha,” he said. “So that could mean that the government conspired with me in as I engaged in illegal acts. This is all about the ethics of the Oknha’s career.”
‘A noble moral example’
Unofficial research puts the number of Oknha and higher-status Neak Oknha at no fewer than 1,000.
Since 1994, after Cambodia held its first democratic elections supported by the United Nations, philanthropists who donated U.S. $100,000 or more to the state could be appointed by the government as Oknha. By late 2017, the title’s price had increased fivefold.
Meas Ny praised a recent decision by Prime Minister Hun Sen to establish an inter-ministerial working group to manage issues related to the title and to review the legal process of granting and withdrawing the honorary status.
The political analyst said that the group should examine an individual’s qualifications, profile, and sources of income before deciding to grant the Oknha title.
“We [also] need to have a transparent mechanism for providing this title [and] a mechanism for control [because] we see some tycoons misusing their roles,” he said.
Cambodia’s Court of Appeal last week released powerful businessman Oknha Kith Theang who was arrested, convicted, and sentenced two years ago for being a ring leader in a drug distribution ring centered in the capital Phnom Penh. He was originally sentenced to four years in prison, but the higher court reduced his jail term to two years and quietly freed him.
He used his wealth and powerful connections during the past two years to pare his jail stay down to only two weeks, while spending the rest of the time in a hospital, claiming that he was sick.
Individuals need to demonstrate morality and integrity before they are granted Oknha titles, said Kim Sok.
The individual should be “a person who sets a noble moral example in daily life and is a role model in society, not one who ‘rapes’ people and then sues them,” he said.
Some tycoons and Oknha have had their assets in the U.S. frozen by the U.S. government, while others continue to use money to buy property abroad.
At the same time, there are virtuous individuals who have donated money earned legally to social and humanitarian causes.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.