On Monday, videos circulated on social media showing the Cambodian tycoon Duong Chhay – who has been bestowed the royal honorific of oknha, a reward for businesspeople who donate more than $500,000 to the ruling party – viciously beating his ex-wife, the entrepreneur Deth Malina. The footage was reportedly from December 13, the day before she publicly announced their divorce. Another video posted was reportedly from a later date. Chhay took to Facebook to try to defend himself, although only made matters worse through his overt misogyny and histrionics, claiming he beat his wife because she tried to control his movements.
After the videos went viral on social media, the government jumped into action, keen to show that it is on top of such scandals. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs decried violence against women. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the Senate President to write to King Norodom Sihamoni, requesting that Chhay’s oknha title be revoked. It waits to be seen whether the authorities will prosecute, although they appear to be waiting for Malina to file a case, which many argue shouldn’t be needed for the police to arrest the tycoon.
Chhay, who also goes by Duong Udomchorvin, has a long history of violence, but every time he has been let off lightly, most likely because of his family’s connections. In 2013, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his role in a Khmer New Year brawl at a Phnom Penh restaurant, in which his brother Kimlong pistol-whipped a man. But he only served six months of that charge, and was released early on the condition he stop drinking alcohol, which the police have no real way of monitoring.
Then, in August 2015, Chhay was again jailed for beating the son of another tycoon, the logging-giant Try Pheap. Given a one-year sentence, the judge then dropped it to four months and released Chhay, who had happened to be in pretrial detention for exactly that amount of time. Chhay again surfaced in the press in 2018 when he accused the nanny of his children of beating them, for which she was arrested and reportedly confessed to, although confessions can be easily bought. I cannot find out whether or not the nanny was imprisoned for this alleged infraction. But the footage of Chhay beating his wife raises questions, as his children are present and only just escape being injured themselves.
Hun Sen sought to put himself on the right side of the story when he took to Facebook this week to post a message: “Why is Duong Chhay so cruel?” He probably forgot that in February 2020, he took the time, while speaking to a group of graduating students, to praise Chhay for apparently turning his life around, “transforming himself into a philanthropist,” as the prime minister put it. Hun Sen also probably forgot that in June 2017 he specifically referred to Chhay as an example of how the government was cleaning up its act. “We are not the people’s bosses but are the ones who serve the people honestly,” the prime minister stated, seeking to present his government as a responsive administration, which listens to the people’s concerns and acts.
The example Hun Sen gave was that when the arrest warrant went out for Chhay in 2013, his father Duong Ngiep, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, reportedly brought him into the police station. Ngiep said at the time that Hun Sen told him to turn his son in. “Hun Sen personally advised me to do so, and as his inferior, I followed him. This is in order to set a good example and to practice the law so that our society is safe,” Ngiep said. Referring to this in his 2017 speech, Hun Sen stated: “If we do not impose punishment, where is the justice among those who commit the same offense but [get] a different status in being punished? We cannot indulge our children.”
Ah, but they did indulge. Chhay received little more than a slap on the wrist for his two past convictions, and the government has now only leapt into action – although so far this only means stripping the tycoon of an honorific – months after the reported abuse took place. Presumably, Chhay’s brutality towards his ex-wife was known before last weekend. In the footage, several people look on as he strangles and beats her. Cambodia’s elites are close-knit and talk about such matters travels quickly.
Chhay is the son of an immigration police official and property magnate Duong Ngiep, who was also made an oknha sometime in the past. He also has a road named after him, in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district. However, in December 2019, Ngiep was among the 36 National Police officers who had their honorific titles removed as part of an apparent bid by the government to riffle out potential conflicts of interest within the police and military. By this time, in 2019, he had risen to deputy secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s general secretariat, a rather important position that put him in charge of personnel and promotions. Was it a demotion? Probably not. The Duong family was again offered up by Hun Sen as an example of change.
Exactly what the Duong clan has done to make their fortune is unclear. Chhay is referred to as a property tycoon, but he isn’t mentioned as a director of any company in the country’s business records, nor is his father. Only Kimlong, Chhay’s brother and the one charged with the pistol-whipping in 2013, is listed as the founder and director of DNG Group, a firm in the construction sector and which is presumably the front for the family’s property empire.
Is Chhay going to receive yet another slap on the wrist? Is the Hun Sen government’s apparent readiness to rid the system of patronage, to treat all people, from wealthy to poor, alike in the rule of law, going to be as hollow a promise as it seemed when he made it in 2017 – and as hollow as it has been in practice since then? After all, Chhay was the example Hun Sen gave all those years ago when boasting about his reformist intentions. What is he to be the example of now: a government that puts justice above status, or the opposite?