Speaking in 1962, eight years before it actually happened, Cambodia’s leader Norodom Sihanouk knew enough about the political system he had created to forewarn: “This ball and chain of corruption will finish by bringing me down.” It did. In 1970, while he was on a visit to South Korea, Sihanouk’s military commander and on-and-off prime minister Lon Nol and his distant relative Sisowath Sirik Matak (two politicians considered irremediably corrupt) conspired to remove him from power. The graft that was allowed to rot for decades would also bring down Lon Nol’s new republic in 1975, making way for the Khmer Rouge’s four-year genocidal regime, which left as many as a third of Cambodians dead.
So should Cambodia’s current prime minister, Hun Sen, have been more thoughtful when last week he sat in the front row of an opulent wedding of the daughter of Ouk Savuth, head of Phnom Penh’s Regional Court of Appeal, and the son of an okhna, an honorific title bought by business tycoons? The conspicuous wealth inequality that has come to define Cambodian society clearly hasn’t receded because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in an ever greater gulf between the rich and the poor – or, rather, between those who work for a living and the new aristocrats who skim their wealth from corruption and “rent” extracted from the ever ballooning property sector and foreign investment.