‘An Oknha’s Stomach Can Eat Up Lakes, Mountains and Forests’

4 min read
The NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

Mong Reththy, one of the country’s most prominent “oknha,” says he has played back on repeat an academic’s tirade about the honorific.

“What he said, it’s awesome,” said Reththy, chairman of the agro-industrial empire the Mong Reththy Group. “I support it. I’ve listened to it again and again. It’s awesome.”

Reththy’s business spans palm oil, pork, rubber and more; employs more than 10,000 people; and claims to be among Southeast Asia’s biggest agricultural enterprises, according to its website.

And, as he said on Monday, he has spent more than $30 million building schools and infrastructure, fulfilling what he said was the oknha’s role in building up the country and serving the poor.

But the title, amid persistent scandals, has acquired a mixed reputation.

On Friday, Sok Touch, the head of Cambodia’s Royal Academy, blasted oknha in a public speech at the academy — an institution that manages a forest in Preah Vihear province that he said was getting ransacked.

Cambodia should preserve its trees, become “a garden for the world,” plant flowers along national roads and preserve Phnom Penh’s lakes to beautify the capital, Touch said.

Instead, his forestry preserve was getting raided for luxury wood.

“My patience has run out,” Touch said.

Last year, an oknha, Soeng Sam Ol, was arrested in Mondulkiri province for alleged timber trafficking. Another, Phoeun Phalla, was under investigation for a clash with residents over land in Preah Sihanouk province.

Previously, oknha Tan Seng Hak was jailed for drugs smuggling; oknha Sok Bun was caught on camera viciously beating a well-known female TV personality at a Phnom Penh restaurant; oknha Syla Loy was found with 50 kg of heroin; and oknha Ngin Mono was arrested for allegedly using a fake $100,000 check.

Meanwhile, the country’s most notorious alleged illegal timber trader is oknha Try Pheap, a former adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Touch did not name names during his speech. But he said that when illegal loggers are arrested and fined, they simply log more to make up for the loss.

“Presidents’, prime ministers’, farmers’ and okhna’s stomachs — a farmer’s stomach only damages a crab’s hole; it just takes crabs, and rice paddy, herbs and water convolvulus. But an okhna’s stomach can eat up lakes, mountains and forests. And a president’s stomach can eat up a country, like you’ve seen in the Middle East,” Touch said.

In 2014, there were already 700 oknha in the country, according to the Cambodia Daily. And in 2017, the price for an oknha title went up from $100,000 to $500,000 in donations to the state.

The Cambodia Chamber of Commerce currently lists 143 oknha among its members, including jailed tycoon Kith Theang, whose Rock Entertainment Center on Monivong Blvd. was shut down in 2019 for allegedly being a hub for drugs.

At a small land protest at Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok last week, lakeside residents raised flags and banners demanding land titles for their dilapidated shacks on the water. They had seen oknha Kim Heang, the wife of CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, receive 30 hectares on the lake in a decree signed by Hun Sen. Oknha Suy Sophan, known for the violent inner-city Borei Keila evictions, received 46 hectares.

“Why the oknha?” one protester asked. “Why, when people asking for land since the 1990s can’t get it?”

Public criticism of the dismantling of Boeng Tamok, one of Phnom Penh’s “last lakes,” has reached Hun Sen’s ears. He has backtracked on some allocations, though he remains defiant, saying he is tired of the “jealous” criticism.

Oknha Mengly Quach, a medical doctor and philanthropist, said on Monday that the value of the title had taken a hit.

“Some oknha have not been seen helping anything,” Quach said. “They are not suitable to be oknha.”

He said he had recently built two schools worth about $300,000, raising his total contributions to the state to more than $5 million.

“Like any country there have been some bad and some good,” he said. “Some people work as a civil servant and his or her excellencies are very poor but very loyal and serve the nation. Other excellencies do unexceptional work but their money reaches the sky.”

Reththy, the agro-industrial magnate, nevertheless cautioned against overlooking all oknha.

“You might not think it when you hear ‘oknha,’ but some are cool,” he said. “[Others] borrow Rolls Royces to try to be cool. Those ones are not cooler than you.”

“Some oknha are better than you. Some are worse than you,” he continued. “It’s like water and salt … if you keep adding more water and water, it becomes diluted, more diluted, too diluted.”

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