Chinese New Year is coming and crowds of uniformed police, military police, soldiers and even the stony-faced troops of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit will be queuing with expectation at the gates of the rich and powerful to receive their annual “ang pao” envelopes.
In probably the first gift-giving ceremony of the approaching New Year, hundreds of members of the armed forces stood patiently in the mid-morning sun on Friday at the ornate gates of Sok Kong’s house on Norodom Boulevard.
Inside the expansive grounds of the well-known businessman’s French-colonial era villa, which was once the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, a stage had been set up and tables and chairs arranged for an early New Year party for the staff of his Sokimex conglomerate.
“There are a lot of soldiers, police and military police coming here to receive ang pao,” said Mich Saroeun, a private security guard on duty at Mr. Kong’s party.
“I can’t count all of them,” Mr. Saroeun said.
Though it may seem odd to some to see hundreds of men in uniform lining up to receive little red ang pao envelopes stuffed with small amounts of cash, the annual tradition is growing in popularity and official acceptance by military and police commanders.
“Last year only a few people knew that Oknha Sok Kong provided ang pao, but this year a lot of soldiers and police knew about it, and they came to get it,” said Ta Map, a motorcycle taxi driver, who was watching the queue of expectant faces as they entered the villa.
Not all were happy when they emerged, however.
“I only got 10,000 riel,” said police officer, Nop Bo, who had been expecting a little more from his waiting and queuing on Norodom Boulevard than just $2.50.
Another police officer did better: “I received 50,000 riel [$12.50],” he said, declining to give his name and rank, or comment on his New Year gift from Mr. Kong, whose business empire stretches from garment factories to petrol stations and from a casino and hotels to operating the ticketing at the Angkor Wat complex.
“This amount of money can get me two liters of petrol,” said a military police officer as he appraised the contents of his ang pao.
According to Chinese tradition, ang pao is money given during holidays and special occasions, particularly during the Lunar New Year to young children, to bring luck and ward off evil spirits.
The likelihood that giving ang pao to police officers in uniform might also ward off the correct enforcement of the law one day was denied by military police spokesman Brigadier General Kheng Tito, who likened the cash gift-giving to a “religious” issue.
“No one forces us to take [ang pao], and we did not ask them to give it to us,” Brig. Gen. Tito said, explaining the large attendance by his military police officers at Mr. Kong’s house.
“This is humanity. This is not bribery,” he said.
“Even though they give us ang pao, when they commit wrongdoing, we will implement the law.”
When asked last year if it was appropriate for members of the armed forces to take envelopes of cash from the rich and powerful at Chinese New Year, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said it was hard to say.
“We don’t have any such laws or regulations on what we call a conflict of interest,” he said.