Cambodia’s ‘Oknha’ Tycoons Abuse Power to Commit Crimes: NGO

cambodia-logging-virachey-national-park-feb-2017.jpg A camera trap image shows a clandestine crossing to Vietnam from Cambodia's Virachey National Park, in February 2017.
Photo courtesy of EIA

Tycoons in Cambodia known as “Oknha” are abusing their power to commit crimes, a nongovernmental organization said Tuesday, as those who hold the honorary title in addition to a ranking position in the military or police are being required to choose between the two to avoid conflicts of interest.

The title of Oknha—meaning nobleman or lord--is given by royal decree to anyone who has contributed at least U.S. $500,000 to the government, and many who hold the title first amassed vast fortunes through successful business ventures in Cambodia.

However, Oknha are increasingly abusing the power that comes with their title to cheat people and commit crimes with impunity, negatively impacting the value of the designation, according to Pen Bonnar, who heads the local community empowerment office of Cambodian NGO Adhoc.

Additionally, he told RFA’s Khmer Service, many officials with the military and police are “buying” the title of Oknha “to conduct business, rather than to contribute to society,” and have engaged in illegal logging and land encroachment.

Pen Bonnar’s comments come after Prime Minister Hun Sen last month ordered members of the military and police who hold the Oknha designation to choose between their official and private titles, with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) acknowledging that the move was made to minimize conflicts of interest and prevent them from gaining business advantages or committing offenses.

Pen Bonnar on Tuesday welcomed the move, and said that no one should hold the Oknha title as well as a position of influence over society.

“It is not only members of the military [and police] that should not have the title, even NGO members shouldn’t hold it,” he said.

Since Hun Sen’s order, Cambodia’s Defense and Interior ministries have been working to identify officials within their organizational structure who carry the Oknha title, with the Defense Ministry having identified 99 to date and the Interior Ministry 33.

While Defense Minister General Tea Banh has said that the “majority” of the 99 have given up one of their conflicting positions, he has not disclosed how many.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said on Monday that only one of the 33 Oknha working within a dozen of the ministry’s high-ranking departments—including the National Police—had agreed to give up their private title.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng was expected to hold a meeting on Tuesday to determine how to proceed because the remaining 32 Oknha in the ministry have been unwilling to relinquish their honorary titles.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA on Tuesday that he was unable to provide an exact figure for the number of state officials who also hold the Oknha designation, but said that authorities are “taking measures” to ensure that those who commit crimes are held accountable and stripped of their titles.

“Some Oknha have committed crimes—they abused their titles in ways that impacted the forests and the land—but they are being arrested and detained,” he said.

Recent high profile criminal cases involving Oknha have included Kith Theang, the owner of the Rock Entertainment Center who is currently in pre-trial detention facing drug charges, Thong Sarath, a former military officer who was convicted of murder, and Hun Sen’s nephew Hun Chea, a police official who served a six-month jail term last year for discharging his service weapon during a dispute with his wife.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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