With less than three months until Cambodia’s national elections, the country’s political and business elite gathered Wednesday in Phnom Penh to mark World Red Cross Day, taking part in a donation drive that raised $14 million for the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) in the presence of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany.
In front of a crowd of thousands of young Red Cross student volunteers at the CRC’s headquarters, many of the country’s powerbrokers waited for almost two hours to hand-deliver their donations to Ms. Rany, who is president of the organization, and Mr. Hun Sen, as they posed for a photo with the first couple and had the size of their donation announced over loudspeakers.
The largest donation by far came from the Booyoung Group —a Korean development firm that broke ground on a $1.1 billion satellite city project in Sen Sok district on Tuesday—which gave a whopping $3 million to Ms. Rany’s organization.
NagaCorp, which has an exclusive license to operate casinos in Phnom Penh, and Metfone, the Vietnamese military-owned telecommunications firm that boasts the largest subscriber base in the country, were tied for second place with donations of $500,000 each. The Chinese company Huawei Technology donated $200,000, Canadia Bank gave $80,000 and the state-owned Electricite du Cambodge chipped in with $40,000.
Casino magnate Try Pheap, who was recently awarded the purchasing rights to all timber felled from economic land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, and Lao Meng Khin, who holds a 99-year lease on the land around and including Boeng Kak, each gave $100,000, while Royal Group chairman Kith Meng donated a comparatively modest $10,000 to the CRC’s cause.
The largest donation from a government official—$300,000—came from former Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema. However, $10,000 was the standard donation among senior CPP ministers—a group that included Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Finance Minister Keat Chhon, Defense Minister Tea Banh, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and Tourism Minister Thong Khon.
Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong contributed $43,000 and Cabinet Chief Sok An donated $15,000.
Each person who attended Wednesday’s event was given a copy of a DVD entitled “Cambodia’s Red Cross Songs Volume 6,” which included a number of songs, such as “The existence of the highest hero-woman of humanitarians,” praising Ms. Rany and her work with the Red Cross.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol presented Ms. Rany with the title of Samdech, the highest honorific that can be awarded to a public figure in Cambodia and which is held by only a select group of CPP officials including the triumvirate of Mr. Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Reading out a statement from King Norodom Sihamoni, Mr. Sam Ol said: “Bun Rany Hun Sen is a great leader, is highly respected by people and deeply honors the monarchy. At the same time, [she] has led the Cambodian Red Cross successfully, received strong support from national and international societies and has a great ability to help the victims of natural disasters.”
Following the awarding of her new title—the first time the honorific of Samdech has been awarded to a woman—Ms. Rany told the crowd that Wednesday was the best day of her life.
“Today is the greatest day of my life because His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni was pleased to give me this honorary title. This title is the greatest honor and will encourage me to keep up my hard work and help my beloved country,” she said.
Cambodia National Rescue Party vice president Kem Sokha said that he did not get an invite to the CRC ceremony.
“We all know that the Cambodian Red Cross belongs to the CPP, so they only invite the CPP and do work for the CPP,” he said, adding that the purpose of donations to the CRC was likely to secure positive relations with the country’s most powerful family.
“In Cambodia, if you want to remain in a high position or continue to operate a profitable business, you have to serve the government leaders and serve the prime minister,” he said, adding that the size of government officials’ donations was suspicious, as most of them earn a salary of about $1,000 a month.
Khem Ley, a social economist who heads the Advanced Research Consultancy Team, said that the money generated by the CRC was also being used to benefit the CPP ahead of elections.
“There are political people inside the CRC who are always taking advantage of the organization for their own political gain. The contribution of donations allows their political campaign to go further,” he said.
This year’s CRC event raised $4 million more than it did last year.
Speaking on Tuesday about the annual increase of donations to the Red Cross, CRC deputy secretary-general Men Nary Sopheak said that it was evidence that Cambodians are becoming more confident in the Red Cross’ ability to provide assistance to those in need.
“This gradual increase [in funding] is reflective of greater confidence in the Cambodian Red Cross, which uses these funds to help people,” she said.
“For instance, the strong, wild winds that recently destroyed and damaged people’s houses nationwide. Who provides assistance to them? The Cambodian Red Cross does.”