A Khmer-American friend of mine acknowledges that he made a mistake when trusting a Cambodian acquaintance. That trust has cost him well more than $1 million, a loss he can ill-afford. Not many ordinary Khmer-American businessmen could.
From what I gather, my friend — call him Hak — doled out monthly payments to the guy. The man — I’ll call him Vwibol — apparently was to lend that money to other Cambodians at admittedly exorbitant, but commonly charged, rates. (The details that Hak provides tend to be kind of vague, so I am not even positive about the nature of his monthly investments.)
Every month, Vwibol would return some thousands of dollars to Hak. But the money stopped coming in September. Vwibol says he lost it all gambling and has no assets to reimburse my friend, though it is possible he bought land in a way that is untraceable.
It was outright theft, and Hak had basically funded a Ponzi scheme in which he was the sole victim.
Feeling sorry for the guy, Hak was reluctant to seek any punishment via the authorities. Instead, he sought out a lawyer who wanted a percentage of any money recovered. Hak came to conclude that the man was ill-equipped to obtain any funds if, indeed, there were assets to recover. He also ultimately believed that the lawyer was interested only in lining his own pockets.
Let it be said that recompense for any crime — whether drunken driving or a hit-and-run fatality — often is a pittance. Families often will settle for a few thousand dollars for the worst offenses, and the authorities may settle for a signed “contract” from the offender that he or she will not violate the law again after having been “educated.”
Court judgments seem to be quixotic and unrelated to the magnitude of a crime either by being laughably small or incomprehensibly severe. One that caught my eye recently was 50 years in prison for a thief who had stolen half a dozen or so motorbikes over time. A judge recently freed from prison thugs who beat senseless two legislators after serving but one year of a four-year term.
To deny that the rule of law here is mostly honored in the breach is like calling the U.S. president-elect an honest man.
Political influence and monetary consideration are the Cambodian substitutes for justice. It is the way of life here. It is a systemic cancer in my view, though some would argue that breaking the rule is merely a cultural artifact.
Eventually, my friend did go to the police. Meeting with a senior official with stars on his shoulders, Hak agreed to give the man 20 percent of any seized assets.
That bribe was bad enough, if hardly a surprise in this country, but the police official’s work is limited to nothing more than allowing an underling to pursue the case.
Wouldn’t you know that the underling, who also bears stars on his shoulder, has made clear that he wants to be paid as well? He told Hak that he was planning a trip to China. Would Hak “help” him out? my friend relates. At first, Hak wondered what that guy wanted.
“I didn’t know what he meant,” Hak told me in words to that effect. “Does he need a suitcase? Does he want $100.”
It seems that $100 would be an insulting amount. When Hak and I last spoke about the case, he supposed $1,000 might be enough. Whether he planned to pay the police official that sum or more is not something he appeared willing to acknowledge to me.
The underlying tragedy is that Hak is generous. He has been hoping to open a small school with free tuition for impoverished Cambodians plus a dental clinic, also planned to be free. Those impulses are out the window.
Paying off the police is a well-known requirement here in Cambodia, whether for traffic offenses, help in recovering lost property, the pursuit of, for example, thieves, or the overlooking of charges up to murder or child rape.
Still, the scale of the demands on Hak surprised me. Learning about them left me depressed and angry as well.