Phnom Penh — Karaoke is big in Cambodia. Very big. Office workers sing and dance the night away while sipping iced beer in windowless, bunker-like karaoke parlors known as “KTV”s. Younger viewers download the videos directly onto their computers and sing at home.
Flip to any of the country’s nine major television channels — all owned by government officials or business people with close ties to the governing Cambodia People’s Party and it won’t take long before a karaoke video singing the praises of Prime Minister Hun Sen or his wife, Bun Rany, comes on the air.
The programming is part of a quiet but long-running propaganda campaign that takes full advantage of Cambodians’ passion for sing-along.
Hun Sen, a canny former Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter who later rebelled against the regime, has held power for the past 27 years. Western countries criticize his government’s record on human rights: Protesters and activists have been shot, and high-profile opposition figures are routinely prosecuted on trumped-up charges. But the steps that he is taking to remake Cambodian culture in his own image are perhaps an even more insidious form of control.
Hun Sen has already commissioned dozens of the country’s top comedians as military officers in his personal bodyguard unit, ensuring that their jokes toe the party line. Nearly every new school, bridge or road that has been constructed or renovated in the past decade is named after Hun Sen or Bun Rany.
Hun Sen and his relatives have been given lavish, nonsensical royal titles with Sanskrit roots. Hun Sen now goes by Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo, something like Illustrious Prince, Great Supreme Protector and Famed Warrior. Or Techo, for short.
And then there is Hun Sen karaoke, the hundreds of songs by Hun Heng, the prime minister’s personal songwriter. (The two men are not related.) In the 1990s, Hun Heng’s job was to compose pastoral love ballads that were thenrecorded and sold as Hun Sen’s own work. Any pretense that Hun Sen writes his own material has since been dropped, and Hun Heng is a fairly well-known figure in his own right.
I asked Hun Heng if he would meet me to talk about his compositions, but he refused. “It’s very hard to explain,” he said over the phone last month. “I can’t explain this whole thing with just a few words.”
But the songs speak for themselves. Videos celebrating two of Hun Sen’s recent major policy decisions have been in heavy rotation on multiple television stations recently.
One of them praises a measure to end a system of privately owned fishing lots and open up more space for subsistence fishing. “This sub-decree of 7 March 2012 has truly sprung from the intellectual and thoughtful mind of someone who is trying to conserve endangered fishing resources,” sing a man and a woman in harmony, over image after image of flopping fish.
“Heart of the Volunteer Teenager” lauds a program that dispatches students to survey disputed land in the countryside. In the video, old women flash toothless grins as they hold up their land documents while a singer croons: “Mother Bun Rany gives us opportunity and destiny, and Father Techo is highly superior and elicits our great gratitude.”
Dozens of karaoke panegyrics to Bun Rany, a former nurse with a formidably bleached and powdered face, enumerate her good qualities. She is “a Cambodian women’s hero.” She has a “great, famous history.” She is a “great model person.” She is “an actual mother of charity.” She has “actually changed people’s ways of thinking — oh!” She is “actually made of diamonds and gold.”
One video presents a blow-by-blow of the day in 2011 when the first lady was given not one but two titles by the Royal Academy of Cambodia, the nation’s highest academic body: Most Outstanding Lady of Cambodian Society andKittiprittbandit — roughly, Glorious and Upright Person of Genius.
Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American academic who closely follows the political situation here, told me that “the constant playback is like any propaganda.” And while most people don’t run out to buy up the DVDs, “it eventually seeps into the consciousness.”
Sophal Ear also pointed out that Hun Sen’s vast musical output is a throwback to the days of the charismatic late King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a prolific songwriter, singer, filmmaker, jazz saxophonist and painter.
But a friend recently explained to me an important distinction. Of Sihanouk’s songs, he said, “they are very beautiful and meaningful.” But “listening to Hun Sen’s songs is like eating bad food.”
As it happens, this friend had been struggling to find a primary school for his six-year-old son that isn’t named after Hun Sen. “There are only a few in the entire city,” he explained. The boy finally ended up at Hun Neang Elementary School. It is named after Hun Sen’s elderly father, who was recently given his very own title: Tycoon of Great Honesty and Charity.
Julia Wallace is managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.