Land, Cops, the Rich and the Poor

The morning of Chinese New Year Day, on my way to the pharmacy, I happened up a street on which the owner of one of Cambodia’s controversial land development companies lives. The road was lined with cars and motorcycles and filled with uniformed police loitering about. Dozens of them, with more arriving by the minute. At first I thought there might be a problem of some sort, but soon realized there was a New Year party going on at the home of the land developer and these were the guests. I was ready for a caffeine break anyway so I stopped at a café a couple of doors down, ordered an ice coffee, went back outside and sat down with the parking guard to watch the happenings.

The uniformed men stood in small knots in the street in front of the party house, smoking and chit-chatting. The mood was light and festive. I couldn’t see anything of the party for the tall walls surrounding the place but could hear the sounds of traditional lion dancing and then an enormous string of firecrackers going off. It went on continuously for several minutes, punctuated by gunshot-like M-80 blasts. Drawn by the noise and goings-on, a group of poor folk gathered across the street – kids, women, old men with walking sticks – country people, street people, (evictees?,) hard to say who they were exactly. Perhaps 40 or 50 in all, quietly gazing on at the activities from the sidelines.

The uniformed men took turns going into the party. When they reemerged through the front gate, each had a big smile and a bright red ung-bao envelope in his hand. (Part of the Chinese New Year tradition is to give ung-bao envelopes containing token gifts of money.) They stood in the street together, tearing open their envelopes, holding out the money and comparing gifts. The poor people watched and tittered amongst themselves. The parking guard next to me speculated that they were hoping for a hand-out from the house.

A couple of the party goers walked nearby, opened envelopes in-hand. The guard asked them how much they got. “Everybody got 50,000 Riel (US$12.50) each,” one said, adding, boastfully, that over 1300 police had attended the party. If he was correct about those figures, that’s more than US$16,000 in little red envelopes.

The party wound down. Within an hour most of the uniforms were gone and the street was clear again, except for dozens of torn and empty ung-bao envelopes blowing around in the road. As the last of the attendees left and the front gate snapped shut, it became apparent that the party was over.

Nothing was given to the poor.

The group lingered briefly, then slowly thinned, moving off in different directions, disappearing. When I left, a few, maybe 4 or 5, were still there holding out. Perhaps hoping against hope that a few crumbs may still fall from the table. Or maybe they just didn’t have anyplace else to go.

Casey Nelson

This is a guest post from the LTO Cambodia

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