Saturday, March 3, 2012

What’s in a Title?

My wife reconnected with a long-time friend after about almost 10 years. They simply had lost sight of each other mainly because my wife went to live in the U. S. with me. Now that we settled here permanently as opposed to our previous in-and-out status they just chanced to meet at one of the many weddings taking place all over the country (see previous post). As it happens the friend’s husband had been promoted to 2-star general in the intervening years, and that entails the title ‘His Excellency’, and for his wife ‘Look Chumteauv’.

Excellency in Khmer is translated as Aek O Tom (pronounced Ayodom), which roughly translates into ‘person of high standing’. This title sort of automatically attaches itself to people who have reached a certain level in the government. To my information it starts with Under Secretary of State. Directors of ministerial departments to their chagrin are not beneficiaries of that important honorific.

However, as soon as an officer reaches the rank of one-star general or brigadier general he/she automatically becomes an ‘Excellency’. One has to remember that this title originally derives from a Latin word mean outstanding; the verb ‘excel’ says it succinctly. Now informed people know that there are more than 1,000 generals in the Cambodian Armed Forces. The actual size of the army is for some reason a somewhat mysterious figure but it is estimated to be around 120,000. Given the size of Cambodia and that there is no real threat to Cambodia’s security, this is a somewhat inordinate high number. Theoretically, that puts a general in charge of 1200 men and women. The actual number is higher since there are many generals in staff functions that do not command any soldiers (koan te hean). In comparison to Western armies this would be about the size of a large battalion, which is normally commanded by a colonel.

If relevant reports are to believed many a star was bought; the benefits are clear: better business connections. (So there goes the meaning ‘excellent’.) Military personnel seemingly have a hand in everything. One of the largest brokers of land concessions, for instance, is a major general. He almost exclusively deals in concessions for rubber plantations Vietnamese companies have acquired over the past years. Way back in the late eighties and early nineties, generals virtually controlled their own fiefdoms, which explained the brisk timber business they were conducting at that time. Obviously, this was also the foundation of much of their wealth.

However, many a general is just that – a commanding officer who worked his way up the ranks. Some of them were sent to Hanoi to attend a military academy there, others got promoted out of gratitude for loyal services rendered to the powers that be. The picture is gradually changing as we can see with the PM’s son, Hun Manet, who graduated from West Point and Sandhurst. Nevertheless, are generals ‘Excellencies’? Are they really on the same level as ministers, state secretaries, and ambassadors?

The pay for a regular general is low, the benefits are modest – free housing, driver, car. Sometimes the military units grow their own rice and raise some chickens or even cattle. The Look Chumteauv – the wives – are ferried around in their large SUVs with their own drivers. Of course, since they lead such a hazardous life they also need a body guard. If you look behind the façade though, you will often find a plain woman from the countryside, barely able to read and write. But they are all ‘Excellencies’. An added benefit is that when a general dies he gets awarded an additional star posthumously. Nice, isn’t it. At least the widow get a higher pension, which is around $250 a month for a 2-star general.

Besides the many military personnel you have a multitude of state secretaries that don’t even work in a ministry. These are the advisers to all those important government officials, usually ministers. Some of those officials have close to 200 advisers. Of course, these are all ‘Excellencies’ too; and their wives ‘chumteauvs’. I know one of those advisers to one of the three top officials in Cambodia. He is an adviser in legal matters - without being an attorney, mind you. Otherwise, he is just a very successful businessman who, as it happens, made his money quite legally. He is a nice and friendly guy too, but he needed that title, the award certificate of which is prominently and proudly displayed in his house.

Then, of course, you have the state secretaries who got the job because they switched allegiance or were otherwise deemed helpful for a worthy cause. During one of my recent business dealings I met a couple of those as well – husband and wife. They have no real authority but to the unsuspecting businessperson they act as if they sit at the levers of power and promise you the world – for a fee, as you might surmise. Rest assured, I didn’t fall for it. On the other hand, I also know another state secretary who fulfills his job to a fault; he is often seen on TV handing out food to rural people in distress or the poorer minorities, which in itself might not mean a lot, but I know he is downright honest.

Granted, the title ‘Excellency’ is definitely a stroke to their ego and sometimes valuable as a door-opener for business opportunities. But, by and large, you could just do away with it as with increasing numbers of theses titles they tend to become rather worthless.

A case in point is the proliferation of PhDs for all kinds of so-called ‘very important people’. Read this article the Cambodia Daily published last year. (The publisher of that newspaper is a crusty old dickhead who hasn’t realized that the age of the internet has arrived, so one needs to use other websites to find these articles.)

The psychology behind this is clear. Cambodia has no aristocracy to speak of, so in order to stand out you need something that differentiates you from the rest – a PhD is the title of choice as it signifies you might have money and power but you are a person of brains too, especially if it is so easily available. ( Not only in Cambodia, this goes for practically the rest of the world too.) A medical doctor has something to show for his title – his work as a doctor, so you know this man/woman really did go through the ordeal of obtaining an academic degree. But a PhD in history from some obscure institute that no one has ever heard of? Or even an honorary degree from similar institutions? Don’t these people see how laughable this is? As the article says, you got your big car, big house, now you need something to round off your personality.

A collector of PhDs is the PM. With a title of Samdech Akkak Moha Sena Padey Techo does he really need that? I have always wondered what this really means in translation. Here it is (as taken from the dictionary):
Samdech - nobleman, prince, lord (high honorific title that can be given to people of non-royal birth
                 usually in recognition of great service to the nation); his highness, his majesty
Akkah (Akkeak) - first, foremost, highest, illustrious, excellent, best; top, summit'
Moha (Maha) - Indicative word used only in compound words to mean 'grand,' 'big,' 'awesome,'
                 'superior,' 'numerous' etc.
Sena – servant
Padey – husband (?)
Decho (Deja) means power, authority, etc.

If you are not connected to the government you can always purchase one of the highest civilian titles in the land ‘Oknha’. Although this originally was a title bestowed by the king to high civil servants, this has now also become a manifestation of wealth. It is said that a cool $100,000 will get that title. Roads, schools, and other public institutions may be named after you. Never mind how you got that money. People who were in prison for fraud and later became prominent, successful businessmen got it. Of course, simple people bow deeply when an Oknha approaches them. I guess that’s the least you can expect for $100,000.

I remember a hit entitled: ‘You’re so vain’ I guess it all goes under this heading.

For an overview of royal titles visit:


Anonymous said...

Great article and I like it. Do you know which star is the most powerful and benefit these day? And if I want one, who can I talk to, name please?

KJE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KJE said...

Even if your comment is supposed to be serious I guess you are kidding. You don't expect me to name names where to buy military ranks on this blog. At the present time, none are available anyway as there is a freeze on military promotions. But the best 'non-military' rank is 2-star general.

Anonymous said...

KJE, Thank you for your response.
"But the best 'non-military' rank is 2-star general.". I'd really like to know more about this and could you please elaborate about it. Let's say if I have one, what could I do with it, please be specific? My comment could be kidding but what if someone else wanted to get one?

KJE said...

First, you need to be Khmer. Second, if someone buys one they get better entry to all kinds of inside information, e. g. government land coming up for sale, etc., in other words they got a let up on other 'normal' people. Usually, local governments fawn over you and give you VIP treatment, hoping for reciprocation, etc., etc. I guess you get it.

KJE said...

That was supposed to read 'leg' up.

Anonymous said...

Which of the star, military or non-military, that having the upper arm in term of investment? Is there an annual fee for holding a star? Or is there anything else one should know about before making such a commitment.

KJE said...

Listen, you make it sound like you go to a business broker and buy a business. First, you need to be connected to some extent already. This is a closed shop. No strangers can just walk up and say I want to do this. Buying a military rank used to be an added advantage, not just the launching pad for a successful business career. Some people bought the 'ayadom' in the form of an adviser, some chose a military rank. The way I see it you are an overseas Khmer. I don't think you would have any chance at all, no matter how much money you wanted so spend. Plus, I said it before, no more deals are to be had.

Anonymous said...

KJE - Calm down, the question is regarding to having a star and what to do with it. What is that has to do with overseas Khmer. And what's the deal are you talking about? Anyway I do appreciate your responses and much enjoy reading your blog's articles.

KJE said...

No need to calm down, I am not upset. But this exchange is sort of futile, if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

My uncle is a 3 stars general, he didn't buy it like those bloody businessmen full of ego. He reached that rank by working hard days by days without counting hours. He was the commander of the national guard in charge of the protection of the PM and he become one of the 24 provincial governors few years ago (I won't tell you from which province). He is also an adviser of the PM (I mean a real adviser, not a man who just got the title to show his power).
I also have a good friend who haven't got diploma but he buy a rank of lieutnant(He buy the title of a lieutnant who die). But I have to tell you that people aren't dumb and can tell the difference between a "real" high ranker and a fake.
Your article is right, you are greatly informed, an excellencie get a free car (mostly the LX 570) with the "state" licence plate and a driver. A free villa in the province for a governor with armed bodyguards at the entry.

Anonymous said...

Not all excellency gets a lexus and get the state plate. Ur uncle dont command the PM bodyguard or he would be 4 stars. Also their is no governor who is also a commander and adviser to the PM.. ur uncle is bullshittin u.. free villa.. tell ur uncle to wake up. He probably a commune police in his flip flops gettin drunk all day.

Anonymous said...

To anon :
Hahah, you are such a troll.
I said "he was commanding", but not anymore...
Dude, you are not well informed so stop saying bullshits and pretending to have the truth.