PHNOM PENH —
For hundreds of years, Cambodians have participated in a traditional wedding ritual known as hai chomnuon, in which the groom’s family marches to the bride’s house bearing the most expensive gifts they can afford.
Today the hai chomnuon is still practiced, but it also exists in symbolic, digital form, as more and more members of Cambodia’s ruling elite are disseminating elaborate wedding videos that publicly showcase their wealth, property, and good fortune—as well as their connections to each other.
When two scions of top CPP families wed in June, they posted a series of videos on YouTube and Facebook that immediately attracted widespread attention due to the panoply of wealth on display, sparking fresh debate over the lifestyles of Cambodia’s rich and well-connected.
In “The Love and Honor of Sokan and Leakhena,” Sok Sokan, the son of the late Council of Ministers president Sok An, is shown donning his Patek Phillipe watch before driving his Range Rover to the granite mansion of Sam Ang Leakhena, the daughter of the owners of Vattanac Capital. The camera then lingers over the couple’s diplomas, photographs of the two with their famous relatives, and even Vattanac’s balance sheet.
While Mr. Sokan and Ms. Leakhena’s videos are notable for their sky-high production values, they are just the latest prominent couple to flaunt their wealth through short films showing everything from getting engaged to being blessed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
A video for Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s son shows him and his fiancee frolicking in ancient dress at Angkor Wat and riding in a traditional golden boat, then driving to their wedding in a white Mercedes as one of Phnom Penh’s largest streets was partially shut down for their benefit.
Yim Beauramey, the granddaughter of two deputy prime ministers, and Meas Sophearith, the son of General Meas Sophea, topped that with a short film depicting themselves as lovers in four different eras: Longvek, Angkor, the Sangkum regime of Norodom Sihanouk, and what they dubbed the “Decho Era,” a reference to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
They also posted another video of their engagement party at an expensive restaurant in Phnom Penh, with Mr. Sophearith, a one-star general, proposing to Ms. Beauramey in full military dress uniform, backed by an honor guard of sword-bearing army soldiers who knelt down before her in unison.
And when the children of tycoons Ly Yong Phat and Kok An tied the knot, Mr. Yong Phat broadcast the entire extravagant ceremony on his eponymous television channel, the Phat News Network.
Many of these videos have been widely shared on social media, mocked by some Cambodians but praised by others, who said they admired the wealth on display and wished they could afford the same.
“I know it’s my big day and all, but I think you need to see my business, my house, and my political party,” the blogger Catherine Harry wrote wryly beneath the video of Mr. Sokan and Ms. Leakhena.
But another Facebook user, Lin Na, 32, said she admired the shindig and wished she could have had a similar wedding herself when she married last year.
“Everyone wants to have the best, the most tremendous, and the fanciest wedding, but we cannot afford it. We can only do the best we can,” she said.
Ms. Na speculated that it was the couple’s good karma accumulated over the course of many previous lives that enabled them to stage such a spectacle.
Sebastian Strangio, author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, noted that the concept of bun, or merit, is an important aspect of Cambodian political culture. Elaborate wedding videos, therefore, serve a dual purpose, advertising both the wealth of the elite families and their underlying merit.
“Ostentatious displays of wealth are a very common way of people transmitting to others that they have reserves of merit built up from good deeds in past lives,” Mr. Strangio said.
“I think these sorts of videos telegraph the fact that the individuals within them are meritorious and they deserve the wealth that they have, and because they are wealthy they have legitimacy.”
Indeed, when Mr. Kheng, the Interior Minister, was criticized last year when his son’s large wedding blocked traffic in central Phnom Penh, seemingly in contravention to the law, his cabinet wrote a letter to The Cambodia Daily arguing that large weddings were the natural order of Cambodian society. Those who disagreed, the letter said, “want Cambodia to become the next Syria.”
But this strategy of portraying the elite’s power and affluence as an outgrowth of the cosmic moral order may have diminishing returns. Discontent over the country’s vast disparities in wealth, and the limited career and educational opportunities available to the poor, has been rising over the past several years. Many analysts point to this as a key factor in the rising popularity of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party over the past half decade.
“It will become an issue if a dawning class consciousness begins to produce a backlash against these ostentatious displays of wealth,” Mr. Strangio said.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, agreed that videos memorializing the extravagance of the political elite could eventually backfire.
He noted that in 2006, public anger spread over a video leaked online of Myanmar General Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding, which featured a sumptuous dinner, champagne, pearls and diamonds. The magazine Irrawaddy blasted the affair for its “mindless indulgence” in the face of Myanmar’s poverty.
“Let’s just hope the outrage felt after Gen. Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding in Burma is not felt here in Cambodia,” Dr. Ear said.
“Of course, if you have the money to burn and want to create a fantasy video that rubs people’s noses in it, you can,” he added. “But things can backfire when the perception is that there is something unjust that resulted in this outcome; flaunting ill-gotten gains can rub people the wrong way.”
The risk is particularly high because the CPP’s own brand is explicitly incorporated into many wedding videos, which often show couples being blessed by Prime Minister Hun Sen or other high-ranking government officials.
“The Love and Honor of Sokan and Leakhena” shows Mr. Sokan vigorously campaigning for the CPP in the June commune elections, while Ms. Leakhena works in her office in Vattanac Tower, before the two come together in an embrace. Party logos appear frequently. The video seems to communicate that it is not just the bride and groom who are being united, but also two of the CPP’s leading families.
“The point of all this is to solidify the relationships of the elites through interlocking marriages that will ensure the survival of the families of the elites,” said Dr. Ear.
However, Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, rejected any suggestion that the marriages of CPP scions were due to political or economic considerations. Instead, he said, it was love, pure and simple.
“Love has no limits,” he said. “In Cambodian folktales, some people even fell in love with snakes and giants; therefore, love has no limits.”
As for suggestions that Cambodians might feel alienated by the extravagance of their leaders’ children, he said the opposite should be true, going on to advance a trickle-down theory of wedding economics.
“In a free economy, when one party spends, another will gain,” he said. “In contrast, if rich people do not spend, it will affect the economy.”