The ‘six degrees of separation’ theory was born when Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy proposed in 1929 that any two individuals in the world can be connected through a chain of not more than five other intermediary people.
Three decades later in 1959, mathematician Manfred Kochen and political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool developed a mathematical formula that assumed if individuals chose 1,000 random friends, it would take no more than three intermediaries to link any two in a group of 100 million people.
But in Cambodia, you don’t need a mathematician to work out that the degrees of separation between the country’s elite is very short indeed, following a wave of recent intermarriages among the children of the rich and powerful.
Lavish weddings, seating thousands, have become the must-attend events of the Cambodian social calendar, but some observers are concerned by what appears to be an inter-generational consolidation of power by Cambodia’s ruling personalities.
The marriages big enough to make news over the past few years include: The January 1996 marriage of Chea Pine, daughter of Senate President Chea Sim, to Khaou Phallaboth, son of prominent Cambodian businessman Khaou Chuly. In August of that year, then Tourism undersecretary of state Sok Chenda married Toan Srey Aun Sophie, the daughter of former Siem Reap province governor Toan Chay.
The year 1997 was not so good for weddings, but in December 1998, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s niece, Hun Chantha, married Dy Vichey, the son of Director General of National Police Hok Lundy.
Hun Chantha’s father is Hun Neng, Hun Sen’s older brother and current governor of Svay Rieng province. Hun Neng’s second daughter, Hun Kimleng, has been married for more than a decade to the now Deputy Director General of National Police, Neth Savoeun.
In March 1999, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana married Moeung Kompheak, the son of RCAF Lieutenant General Moeung Samphan, head of the Ministry of Defense’s Department General of Logistics and Finances.
In March 2001, the youngest son of Chea Sim, Chea Saomethy, married Chea Sophalkun, the daughter of Chea Sorn, Chea Sim’s chief of cabinet. In November that year, Heng Samnang, the son of Heng Samrin, married Hou Dararasmey, who is believed to be the daughter of former customs director and ex-parliamentarian Sar Hou.
Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manit, married Hok Chindavy, the daughter of police Chief Hok Lundy in January 2002.
The following month, former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara’s son, Chea Sopha Pheaksa, married Tao Madina, the daughter of former Agriculture minister Tao Seng Huor.
In July, Heng Sam An, the daughter of Heng Samrin, married Pen Kosal, an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister and co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Pen Kosal is also reportedly the younger brother of Customs Director Pen Siman.
Last March, Sar Sokha, the eldest son of Deputy Prime Minister and co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng was engaged to Ke Sun Sophy, the eldest daughter of Ke Kim Yan, commander-in-chief of RCAF.
And earlier this month, Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, married Yim Chhay Lin, the daughter of Ministry of Rural Development Secretary of State Yim Chhay Ly.
Some say that love is blind, even to Cambodian politics. But others fear that when the powers of public office join forces in marriage, the national interest will be left to fend for itself at the singles’ bar.
Intermarriage of the rich and powerful is not a new phenomenon in Cambodia and is common the world over among the elite, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
The children of the country’s powerful mix in family circles and know each other well. During then prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule in the 1960s, intermarriage of Cambodia’s powerful with the influential was also a feature of the more privileged classes. “They mingle together…. In any generation, I see the same pattern,” she said.
But political power and family clans are not a good mix, Chea Vannath added.
“Family ties in those positions is very bad. You lose touch with reality. You do not think about the subjective or objective,” and the national interest suffers, she said. “When you become a very close clan, family, you are out of touch with the general public. It is very dangerous.”
Though chosen for stability, mixing politics, power and families is a long-term gamble because: “When it collapses, it all collapses,” Chea Vannath said.
Politico-familial dynasties in other Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia’s former president Suharto, former president Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and—further afield—Saddam Hussein in Iraq, were for a time capable of ascending the pinnacles of power on the back of family fealty.
But they eventually lost everything because they were out of touch with the people, Chea Vannath said. “The same was true for the Khmer Rouge; they had intermarriage…. The Khmer Rouge held the power within the family circle but they had no support from the population,” she said.
Mixing weddings and revolution, former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary cemented their friendship with family ties in the 1950s.
Both men married the Khieu sisters, the daughters of a Cambodian judge. Pol Pot married Khieu Ponnary, and younger sister Khieu Thirith, who went on to become Khmer Rouge minister of social affairs, married Ieng Sary.
The later became known as Cambodia’s “Gang of Four”—a pejorative reference to the radical faction led by the widow of Mao Tse-tung that tried to seize power after the Chinese leader’s death in 1976.
Too much power in too few hands cannot be good for society, said Men Nath, director of the Khmer Democratic Front for Students and Intellectuals.
“I think social development will be very slow because of such power strengthening,” he said.
Knowing the family affiliation of Cambodian political figures is crucially important for understanding the particular machinations at work in this society, said an Asian diplomat.
While the intermarriage of children of the rich and powerful is based first on knowledge of each other and mutual comfort between families, it is also important to make the right match in order to build a stronger family alliance for one’s political faction.
The more connections, the stronger in politics and, by default, business, their “clan” becomes, the diplomat said.
In “modern Asia,” the practice is rather antiquated, said the diplomat, adding: “It may happen in other [Southeast Asian countries] but not to the same extent.”
Public office, interwoven with family ties, may prove incompatible, as family considerations may take precedence over national interests, he added.
With Cambodia’s rampant corruption, its discredited legal system and lack of accountability, it is little wonder that even high-ranking nuptials have become suspect as new ploys to increase power and patronage.
While officials, generals and a few big businessman have grown rich in Cambodia in the past decade, public services are virtually non-existent and salaries remain inadequate, forcing school teachers to moonlight or accept money for grades to make ends meet, wrote Evan Gottesman in “Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. Inside the Politics of Nation Building,” which was published last year.
“Low level corruption abounds. Despite numerous efforts by foreign donors and multilateral lending institutions to promote administrative reform, the bureaucracy is still bloated, mired in nepotism and patronage,” Gottesman writes.
In Indonesia the practice of keeping the lion’s share of the national interest for family and friends was termed “bureaucratic capitalism” by Richard Robison, in his 1990 article, “Power and Economy in Suharto’s Indonesia.”
Under bureaucratic capitalism, the “demarcation between public service and private interest is at best blurred.”
Focusing on the vast family-business empire built by President Suharto, Robison relates how important positions and money-making authorities were doled out “among civilian and military factions in the various governments.”
“The most lucrative…are those offices with the power to allocate oil drilling leases, mining leases, forestry concessions, import and export licenses, government contracts for construction and supply, and state bank credit.”
Thun Saray, director of local human right group Adhoc, also believes that political dynasties and democracy are incompatible.
“They are linked by friendship and relations to each other and later they become partisan,” Thun Saray said.
“They try to protect their interests and power and they do not trust each other if they do not have the family relationship,” said Thun Saray.
The project of building accountable, democratic institutions in Cambodia is being weakened by the emergence of family-based political empires, whose first allegiance will be firstly to each other.
Indeed the dangers of divided loyalties based on one’s marriage partner was the focus of a parliamentary debate and a vote to restrict military personnel marrying non-Khmers in 1997.
The National Assembly voted 82 to 4 in September that year to accept Article 16 of a military statute which requires military personnel to seek Defense Ministry authorization before marrying foreigners.
Officials at the time said the restrictions were necessary to prevent state secrets falling into the wrong hands.
Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh said at the time, “This is as if we tell our parent about a wedding. In the military hierarchy, the Ministry of Defense is like the parent.”
Indeed, Ke Kim Yan, RCAF commander-in-chief, said this week that the numerous marriages between children of powerful parents should not be analyzed too much.
“It is not about strengthening the power in the party. The children love each other, it is normal. They grow up and mature so they have to get married,” Ke Kim Yan said.
With the expected marriage later this year of his eldest daughter to the son of Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, Ke Kim Yan said the nuptial match was their kids’ decision.
“They love each other and they want to get married,” Ke Kim Yan said.
“It is not related to political parties. We know each other. We visit each others’ homes and our children go with us. So our children get to know each other, and they get to love each other,” he said.