RCAF Lieutenant General Meas Sophea watched in silence as his 18-year-old daughter Sophie—a student at the elite Northbridge International School Cambodia and fledgling fashion designer—unveiled her work at a charity fashion show in Phnom Penh Saturday.
The RCAF deputy commander in chief sat in the front row as his daughter’s designs—about a half dozen Cambodian-inspired dresses and pantsuits of bold-colored silks that auctioned at more than $100 per outfit—were modeled by schoolmates.
Schoolmate Rotha Sar, the 18-year-old son of Deputy Prime Minister and Co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng, showcased some designs of his own—a pair of silk and satin dresses.
Sophie Meas said later that her parents haven’t completely warmed to her interest in fashion.
“My mom wants me to be in banking and my dad wants me to be a lawyer,” Sophie Meas said. “I hope their minds can change.”
She said she plans to study business in Australia after she graduates this year. Eventually, she said, she will return and maybe establish a business in Cambodia, combining her business know-how and fashion sense.
From business to politics, the children of Cambodia’s political elite are coming of age. And while some welcome the emergence of a young, ambitious and well-educated generation, some are concerned about what appears to be the perpetuating of powerful dynasties and the consolidation of opportunity and privilege.
When establishing their careers the children of high-ranking officials often have “the privilege of an easy process”, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. And since they are generally well-educated—most study abroad—they have the potential influence to help develop Cambodia, she said.
“At least as far as they become more and more entrepreneurial, it is good for the country,” she said Sunday.
But for those children of the lower and burgeoning middle classes, the struggle for upward mobility may be all the harder, she said.
“Nowadays, you have to politically belong to the right people,” Chea Vannath said.
In February, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, was named one of the top stakeholders in First President Airlines. The 23-year-old, together with Hong Kong Center owner Okhna Sour Peng, owns 51 percent of the new international airline, company officials said.
Last June, Hun Sen announced that he hoped his oldest son, Hun Manet, would return to Cambodia this year to serve in the RCAF after he finishes his doctoral studies in England. Hun Manet graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in New York state in 1999.
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s son Prince Norodom Sihariddh is helping his father start a private flying academy in Phnom Penh, royalist officials said earlier this month. Prince Sihariddh reportedly acts as president of the company, Royal Khmer Services.
At age 29, his sister Princess Norodom Rattana Devi was elected as Funcinpec’s parliamentarian for Kratie province in the national election last year.
Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh’s daughter Cham Nimol, 24, was temporarily appointed as the minister’s chief of Cabinet earlier this month. The minister’s son, Cham Borith, is deputy director for Camcontrol, the government body that controls the quality of imported and exported goods.
And Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong’s son Hor Sothuon is now the foreign ministry’s deputy secretary-general.
Men Nath, director of the Democratic Front for Khmer Students and Intellectuals, warned of possible cronyism and abuses of power by children who may be protected by their high-ranking parents.
“This could slow down the democratic process and also make the public administration not neutral,” he said.
Speaking after the fashion show on Saturday, Sar Kheng’s son Rotha Sar, who earlier made headlines when he entered Phnom Penh’s first international go-cart racing competition in April, said that despite his sporting and artistic interests, he, too, plans to pursue a career in business.
“I see a lot more future in business than art,” Rotha said. He said he intends to go to business school in Singapore after his graduation this year.
As for what kind of business he plans to enter in the future, he said: “I haven’t decided but I want to open something new in Cambodia.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)