Money for nothing

February 13, 2013

It’s just been Chinese New Year here in Phnom Penh. This has meant another long holiday, following hard on the heels of the five days set aside for the cremation of the former king last week. And then we’ve got the Khmer New Year to look forward to in mid-April, when everything shuts down again. If you like public holidays, this is a great country. (If you have to work through them, you might be a bit more ambivalent.)

One of the more popular aspects of the Chinese New Year celebrations is the practice of giving lai see (as it’s known in Cantonese), or handing out small red envelopes with cash in it to all and sundry. It was wildly popular in Hong Kong when I lived there, although I recall it was often used by drug dealers, so they could transfer their products and payments openly in public without attracting suspicion.

Here in Cambodia, the practice, and the red envelope, is called ang pao, and unsurprisingly, in such a poor country, it is also very popular. Who doesn’t want to be handed a small packet of cash? Sadly, I didn’t get any this year: in fact, I should, as a grown up, probably have been handing it out myself. [Laughs at the thought.]

Last Sunday, several thousand people, almost all of them policemen and soldiers, gathered outside one of the bloated kleptocrat mansions near my flat in central Phnom Penh, waiting to be given red packets. The uniformed soldiers and officers filling the street were there for ang pao from a lady known as “Yeay Phou,” or Grandma Phou, and they all walked away with between $7.50 and $12.50 each.

Nice, you might think. A generous old lady is rewarding loyal government employees and thanking them for their services to the country. But, to cynical eyes, there is slightly more going on than just that. Grandma Phou is actually called Choeung Sopheap, and she’s the owner of controversial land development firm called Pheapimex, as well as being the wife of ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin.

Pheapimex holds a number of economic land concessions around the country, most notably a 316,000-hectare site in Pursat province where villagers have staged a number of protests, saying their land was illegally cleared. Armed military police have been deployed to guard the concession.

Lao Meng Khin is also the owner of a company called Shukaku, which has used armed government security forces against protesters at its notorious real estate project in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak Lake area. Sadly, it’s not a lake any more, as Shukaku filled it in with sand, after violently displacing the 4,000 families that lived around its margins, with the help of armed police. Now it is “a desolate, apocalyptic landscape of sand, rubble, bulldozers and broken homes,” in the words of local rights groups.

Most people were moved 20 kilometres outside town, far away from their jobs, in a city with no public transport. Those who refused to move suffered continuous intimidation, physical violence, and arrests and detention. By the police. Who really like Grandma Phou.

A local newspaper quoted military police officer called Sieng Radin, who was waiting in the queue, as saying “we help her when problems arise, not only in Phnom Penh but also in the provinces. She loves the armed forces because she knows we protect her and she is a high-ranking official.”

Another military police officer, who said his unit worked directly for the family, said “We are military forces and we are also assistants to her. We always help with whatever she needs help with.”

Apparently more than 5,000 ang paos were handed out, which, by my calculations, is at least $40,000.

“This is our kindness, to distribute the ang paos to the armed forces because they work very hard. All of them, like the traffic police and other police, they not only work for my family but also for everyone’s families,” said a relative of Grandma Phou’s. Apparently he managed to say it with a straight face.

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One Response to “Money for nothing”

  1. J said

    We are much more sophisticated in our approach to bribery in the UK.

    is there an ang paos for me?

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