Initially a status reserved for a privileged few, the number of businesspeople bearing the honorific “oknha” has ballooned from an estimated 20 individuals in 2004 to some 200 in 2008 and more than 700 today.
Traditionally a title of nobility bestowed by the king to honor a chosen few, the title was resurrected by a government sub-decree in 1994. For those wishing to acquire the title, a donation of $100,000 is required along with an ostensible commitment to direct some of their wealth toward the greater good.
Meant to confer honor and prestige, critics say the title has become intertwined with a political patronage network in which relatively small donations open the way for lucrative government contracts.
Rather than being the pillars of society that the title suggests, a number of high-profile oknhas have in recent years been implicated by human rights and environmental groups in illegal logging, land grabs and other social ills.
Te Taing Por, president of the Federation of Associations for Small and Medium Enterprises in Cambodia, became an oknha when the honor was still rare. But he insisted the philanthropic commitment of oknhas was still the defining factor in becoming part of the club.
And for that reason, he welcomed more of his fellow businessmen into the coterie, which includes at least 704 people, according to a list published this week by the government-aligned Koh Santepheap newspaper.
“I have been an oknha since 2001 after helping the country improve roads, schools and hospitals,” Mr. Taing Por said on Friday. “Just becoming an okhna doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.”
If you can pay the $100,000 fee and help develop the state, you should be conferred the title, he added.
But not all oknhas interviewed this week agreed that the proliferation of titles is a good thing, with some saying that the commitment to humanitarian causes may be slipping.
CPP senator and agriculture tycoon Mong Reththy said that becoming an oknha entails not only donating money, but also developing and building charitable projects before the government grants the title.
“If there are a lot of oknhas, then that should be good for society, but I don’t know if they are all real or not,” he said. “And in regards to a small number of them, I don’t understand how they can be oknhas because they make people unhappy.”
Lim Bunheng, president of the Cambodian Rice Exports Association, received his oknha title in 2010 for building schools and roads in addition to his donation. He said he was not sure if the latest batches of oknhas had fulfilled the same commitments.
“If the new oknhas really did help or donate, then it’s good, but some oknhas seem to do nothing and still get that title,” he said.
None of the businessmen interviewed would discuss whether the title also bought influence within the government, or helped sway contracts in their favor.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s trust in the power of personal wealth to transform Cambodia is well documented. In December 2012, he encouraged Cambodians to strive for millionaire status as he inaugurated a sugar refinery on land in Kompong Speu province belonging to CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat and his wife.
“I have one clear policy in strengthening the capacity of local investors, and that is making Cambodians become rich,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “If a country has no millionaires, where can the poor get their money from?”
In one sense, the increase in the number of oknhas reflects the growing prosperity of a fortunate segment of Cambodia’s population. The rise of mansions, gated communities and the fleets of high-end luxury vehicles in Phnom Penh may be evidence of a widening income disparity, but it is hardly a phenomenon unique to Cambodia.
At the announcement earlier this month of plans to open a showroom for Rolls-Royce—the zenith of luxury car brands—Cham Prasidh, minister of industry and handicrafts, said Cambodia now had a large enough wealthy class to afford such conspicuous opulence.
But he also alluded to exactly who in Cambodia might become rich enough to buy a Rolls-Royce.
“There’s a lot of oknhas now in Cambodia who have money to buy these cars,” he said. “I hope more Cambodians can afford the cars.”
But Cambodia is still one of the world’s poorest countries and remains largely dependent on foreign aid to build infrastructure and develop basic services.
All the while, critics say, profits from natural resources—potentially the source of sustainable growth and development—are collected in the private purses of a chosen few, stifling broader improvements to the lives of ordinary Cambodians.
According to independent watchdogs, such cronyism and corruption—concurrent with the increase in the number of oknhas—is getting worse.
According to Transparency International’s (TI) annual Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia fell seven places from 2012 to the 17th most corrupt country in the world in 2013, behind Burma, Zimbabwe and Ukraine.
“The number of oknhas reported in the news is astonishing, especially in a country that still has around 20 percent of population living under the poverty line,” Preap Kol, executive director of TI Cambodia, said in an email.
“There are many oknhas who want and use this oknha title to gain business advantage or access to some special favor by the government or authorities…and violate human rights or abuse poor or marginalized people,” he said, adding that there is no transparency in appointing oknhas or how their donations are used.
In his 2013 book “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” Sophal Ear places the number of okhnas in the country a decade ago at about 20. He writes that the current prevalence of oknhas is a symptom of a greater problem in Cambodia’s political-economic system, where there is not clear line between politics and business.
“Because of the way that power operates in the country, the government has created virtually no incentives for healthy economic development,” Mr. Ear writes. “Instead, development incentives are along the lines of short-term, get-rich-quick schemes, from extraction to land grabs.”
The influence oknhas can wield is evident beyond the high-profile examples of tycoons grabbing land and logging forests. In March, each of the 10 private-sector working groups at the Government-Private Sector Forum contained at least one oknha, with as many as four on some of the seven- to 10-member panels.
The forum’s decisions “are considered as the decisions of the Council of Ministers,” state news agency AKP quoted Prime Minster Hun Sen as saying.
Son Chhay, chief whip for the opposition CNRP, said there are no oknhas in his party because the title, which was once an important symbol in Cambodian culture, has become nothing more than a symbol that a businessman has garnered favor with the ruling CPP.
“The symbol is no longer the same, it is now a badge of wealth, corruption, of deforestation and of land-grabbing,” he said.
“Like the proliferation of doctorates and generals, that should be awarded on merit not because they are bought, the CPP has overloaded our society with stupid things by devaluing their meaning.”
Cheam Yeap, spokesman for the CPP, deferred questions about the abundance of okhnas to the Royal Palace, who he said made all decisions about conferring the honorific.
Om Daravuth, spokesman for the royal family, said the Royal Palace simply rubber stamps requests by the government.
“[King Norodom Sihamoni] just follows the request from Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen—the government gives the documents showing a person has qualified by helping his country by paying $100,000,” he said.
In fact, the royal tradition of the king appointing oknhas is mostly extinct, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a longtime secretary to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni.
“Since 1994, I think the King has only decided to appoint three or four people himself,” he said.