Phnom Penh. Photo via
If you happened to catch our film on Cambodia's first ever Fashion Week, you probably know that the tiny Kingdom has come a long way since the murderous days of the Khmer Rouge and its dirty, awash-with-limbless-children streets.
Sadly, however, its courts remain rife with corruption: Trials unattended by defendants and surprise verdicts are dime a dozen in Phnom Penh, while land grabs are definitely not a thing of the past. Such is the case of Senator Kok (quite the appropriate name, no?), a renegade tycoon who, after getting ahold of the country's industries, has now set his eye on its largest educational institution, Phnom Penh International University, throwing anyone who dares stand in his way in jail (even though he's related to most of them).
I called up my friend Vincent Maclsaac, a Canadian journalist based in Phnom Penh who is investigating the story.
VICE: Hi Vincent, how is Cambodia treating you? You don't sound too chirpy.
Vincent Maclsaac: No, not at all, it’s fascinating! No matter how depressing the story that you're working on might be, there are always inspiring people, fighting for justice. Good for you. Your latest investigation sounds pretty crazy, what’s going on there?
I’m following a court case involving Kok An, who is one of the ten wealthiest men in Cambodia and a senator with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. He owns casinos on both borders, and a company trading global brands – British tobacco, Budweiser and Evian, amongst other things. So, this particular company of his, Anco, doesn’t have a corporate account, and that quite fascinated me. When I looked into it, it turned out that Anco is actually registered in the name of his second wife, while her cousin is named treasurer of the company.
I read Kok An is now making a grab for Cambodia’s largest university?
There are a lot of land grabs in Cambodia, but this is university grabbing so it’s a step up. But he may have overstepped the mark in this case. He is accusing Tep Kolap, the university rector, and her husband Heang Chheang – both of whom also happen to be related to him, and the husband is the treasurer of his company – of embezzling money from him. And not just a small amount of money – he's claiming that they spirited away about as much as the university's worth (8 million USD). As a result, the courts have seized all of their assets.
How is Kok An related to the university rector and her husband?
The rector’s husband’s father is the brother of two of Kok An’s wives. The first wife and the second wife, who are sisters. Sorry, what?
It’s quite complex. Right.
So the rector’s husband, Hung Chheang, would be the sort of poor cousin that was taken in by Kok An and his wife to work in the warehouse, and now he is effectively treasurer of Anco. But why the university? Is Mr Kok just greedy, or is he trying to get a direct line into the minds of the nation's youth?
Universities are actually a very lucrative business in Cambodia, because its population is very young – about a third of it is under 30. So you are looking at an extremely valuable asset and one that’s going to increase in value exponentially. Surely Tep Kolap and her husband are aware of this too? Are they not in it for the money?
It’s the rector’s vision and her business plan that are driving the university. The fees are also about 50 percent less than at its rival universities, so it’s allowed students that would not otherwise have been able to afford a university degree to get one.
Tep Kolap is from well-educated and she's from a wealthy background. Isn't she able to fight these lawsuits?
She should be, but she got thrown in jail.
Lawsuits and prison sentences seem to be thrown around quite a bit in old Kampuchea.
Yes, it’s inherently corrupt. The judicial system is such a disaster – you can buy a verdict here. And all the senators are doing it, it’s nothing new. But at the same time it's not totally bleak, there are highly aware people in the justice ministry, the government and within the court who are devoted to changing the system. Mu Sochua, for instance, the MP fighting for workers' rights, lost a defamation lawsuit battle with the Prime Minister, after he spoke about her like she was a prostitute in public speeches.
Other than the goodwill of a few, what other measures are being taken against corruption?
Cambodia is trying to get more foreign investment, so there is an incentive to make sure that the courts are less corrupt. But corruption is deeply ingrained in the system at the moment, and the people benefitting from this are obviously resisting change.
And what about the students, are they not getting involved?
When Tep Kolap was denied bail there was a protest, but it was small. Cambodian students are generally poor, they are working full-time jobs while at the same time going to school – they don’t have the luxury to plan and carry out protests.
The opposition party have been gaining popularity recently. Would they have an effect on this corruption, if they got into power?
No. They have been in opposition so long, I don’t see them being able to accomplish much at this stage. Shame. For most people, Cambodia and land grabs seems to set off massive alarm bells. Do you think this story is indicative of a regression to Pol Pot's Cambodia of the 1970s?
Well, Cambodia has a history of shocking the world. As a matter of fact, there was a prostest at a rubber plantation on January 17th that the military police just opened fire at. Four people were killed. What?! That’s horrific.
The thing is, given the history Pol Pot made in the country, the Cambodian people just see it as a switch from atrocities to human rights abuses. So they kind of welcome that.
Bleak. How about the corruption? I heard Mu Sochua's party have been gaining popularity recently. If they got in, would the corruption stop?
They have been in opposition so long, I don’t see them as being able to accomplish that at this stage.
Is there nothing to look forward to?
I think that Cambodia's future is possibly very bright and that is because the population is, as I said, overwhelmingly young; They have grown up with high expectations so they are just accustomed to life getting better year after year. They have more freedom than their parents did, they are better educated, they have seen dramatic improvement to infrastructure, more stability… I suspect that they would want this to continue. I guess the only danger is the ruling party stifling this generation.
I see this as the case of a country in transition, whether that is a transition towards something positive or something dangerous remains to be seen. Well let’s hope it’s positive. Thanks, Vincent!