Category Archives: Music

Cambodian Strongman and Karaoke King

January 18, 2013

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.

The lyrics to “Techo Hun Sen on Fishing Lots” begin, “All people really appreciate Samdech Techo Hun Sen, who, on February 28, has broadcast in every direction, making all people very happy about Samdech’s cleverness to declare that…” Then, in Hun Sen’s voice the song continues, “To everyone in the whole Tonle Sap basin, there will be no more fishing lots.”

“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.

The lyrics begin: “The Peace Palace [Hun Sen’s office building in Phnom Penh] is full of scented flowers on July 28, 2011. It’s the highest supreme honor for the First Lady of Cambodia — tremendously excited. It’s a lucky time, 9:00 a.m., to receive a Kittiprittbandit title from the Royal Academy, presided over by an actual doctor of philosophy, Hun Sen, her beloved husband.” The song continues, “Excellency Bun Rany has built foundational achievements. She is a Cambodian women’s hero who is talented in heart, breath and charity.”

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.

Cambodia Population Density Mapped


Alpha version

Units: Persons per grid square

Projection: Geographic (WGS84)

Spatial Resolution: 0.000833 degrees (~100m)

Years: 2010, 2015

Versions: (i) Adjusted to match UN national estimates and (ii) Unadjusted

Mapping approach: Identical to AfriPop

Format: Geotiff (zipped using 7-zip (open access tool):

Input data: See tables on methods page

Phnom Penh’s Cultural Revival


Tom Vater, Thursday 26 April 2012 13.22 BST

Phnom Penh’s Cultural Revival There’s more to Cambodia than its ancient sites, as visitors discover a newly thriving arts and music scene in the capital, Phnom Penh, with galleries, clubs and cafes springing up

Gobshite and Prolyfik perform at Tiger Translate, Cambodia

Gobshite & Prolyfik perform at the Tiger Translate festival, Cambodia

“Welcome to the Penh my friend, big city in the kingdom of wonder, where all the streets are numbered and when it rains it thunders, them smiles stay infectious, chaps asleep in their cyclos or pushing a Lexus.”

Thus rhymes artist Grant Massey in his ode to the Cambodian capital. Massey hails from Leicester and is one half of the Phnom Penh-based hip-hop duo Gobshite and Prolyfik (yes, you read it right – that’s Gobshite!). The other half is Chally Dang, a young Khmer who recently returned to Phnom Penh from Philadelphia, to bring, as he says, true hip-hop to Cambodia.

Their timing is just right. Cambodia’s riverside capital is on the rebound. After little more than a decade of peace following 40 years of war, the city of two million is recapturing some of its early 20th-century flair. Foreign visitors drawn to Cambodia by its ancient monuments are discovering a thriving contemporary cultural scene with arts cafes, clubs and galleries springing up all over town.

Meta House (, a large art gallery, rooftop cinema and restaurant housed in a gleaming white 500 sq m space in the heart of the city, has been at the forefront of raising the profile of Cambodia’s contemporary artists.

“The contemporary arts and music scene really kicked off five years ago,” says Nico Mesterharm, founder of Meta House. “Since then we have had more than a 100 exhibitions presenting contemporary Khmer art.”

Java Arts Cafe, Phnom Penh, CambodiaJava Cafe galleryDown the road from Meta House, Java Cafe ( serves as both cafe and gallery and presents equally interesting artists, such as Mao Soviet, who is currently showing Cloudy and Loud, a light sculpture exhibition created in collaboration with American artist Arnoldo Hurtado, in which the idea of illuminating (both physically and metaphorically) is explored (until 13 May). The fact that Java Cafe turned from a non-profit setup into a business in 2008 is an indicator of the increasing bankability of Cambodian artists.

Just as fascinating, though more specialised, is Bophana (, an audio-visual centre set up by renowned Cambodian film director Rithy Phan to archive images and sounds of the Cambodian memory. Rare Cambodian films such as Kou Oy Chok Chheam (Painfulness), made in 1966, are showing throughout April.

And there’s more. Take a walk down Street 178, behind the National Museum, a road once lined with shops exclusively selling garish depictions of Angkor Wat, and you’ll find a number of new art galleries showcasing emerging local artists. One of the country’s best known is Em Riem who runs La Galleria. The 34-year-old artist, who was born and raised in the Cambodian countryside until the age of 15 and experienced the Khmer Rouge period with his family, has had his work shown in the US, in Colombia, France, Hong Kong and London.

The artistic community’s work has tended to draw heavily on the Khmer Rouge period, but subject matters are changing. Sa Sa Art ( gallery on Street 360 is run by a group called Stiev Selapak – the art rebels – who are currently working on The White Night, a community art project with the residents of The White Building, an infamous slum landmark in the Cambodian capital.

White Mansion Hotel, Phnom Penh, CambodiaWhite Mansion HotelEm Riem, too, is broadening his artistic horizon, moving away from the country’s dark history to help redesign the former US Embassy, now the smart boutique White Mansion Hotel (rooms from £51), which offers huge rooms and an attractive blend of Khmer designs, harking back to the 1,000-year-old Angkor era architecture. Riem’s work – his own brand of modernist furniture and sculpture infused with historic Khmer characteristics – is exhibited in the hotel’s lobby and suites.

Phnom Penh’s music scene has also been given a serious shot in the arm by an influx of young foreigners and Cambodians who grew up outside the country, mixing it up with local artists. In 2002, Hollywood actor Matt Dillon shot City of Ghosts, an affectionate, dark portrait of post-war Phnom Penh. The movie’s soundtrack featured music from the 1960s – Khmer rock’n’roll. Most of the artists of the period were killed by the Khmer Rouge and it’s only now that the country’s pop cultural heritage is enjoying a resurgence.

For the past couple of years, The Cambodian Space Project, a rock band founded by the charismatic female singer Srey Thy and Australian band leader Julien Poulson, have taken their reinterpretations of the country’s 1960s sound around the world – the band have just returned to Cambodia from their second tour of Australia and have also performed in the US, Europe, Hong Kong and China in the last two years. Visitors to Phnom Penh might be lucky and catch them at music venues such as the French-managed balcony bar-cum-exhibition space Equinox ( or Mao’s Pub (, a new nightclub located near Wat Phnom on the city’s riverfront.

The Cambodian capital is beginning to host larger events too. In February, Preap Sovath, the nation’s biggest superstar, performed live in the city’s historic railway station. The 36-year-old collaborated with several foreign artists, as part of the second Tiger Translate art and music festival. Preap sent his favourite songs to British reggae-popsters Will and The People and several other bands, who performed with the heartthrob crooner in front of a 2,000-strong crowd.

Tiger Translate Phnom Penh – one of a global series of events designed to give Asian artists a platform, while offering them opportunities to work with western creatives – is indicative of the Cambodian capital’s flirtation with contemporary cosmopolitan flair. In its own unique way, the “Pearl of Asia” is coming of age once more.

Return to Sender + My Asian Americana

More Studio Revolt here:

“Please write to Ms. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, and ask her to investigate the way her Office of Public Engagement silenced this issue despite the popular vote outcome during the White House AAPI’s “What’s Your Story” video contest. email: AND/OR

This is a video letter addressed to the President of the United States of America, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court from a group of Khmer Exiled Americans (K.E.A.s).

This video letter was filmed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on March 7th, 2012.

This video was intended to be shown at “Champions of Change” event at the White House in April.

Our previous video “My Asian Americana” ( was a finalist for the White House AAPI’s “What’s Your Story” video contest. We won the highest popular votes by a landslide. But the White House decided to disregard the votes and silence our voice in this election year. They formally refused to invite our movement’s representative to the event.

Despite the fraudulent treatment, we intend to keep on informing the public of the devastating effects of so called “criminal alien deportation” which allows no appeal in the court. Many of the deportees, whom we began to call “exiles”, were living respectable lives after their incarceration, having their own business, going to school, starting their own family.

And one day, I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would come pick them up, detain them in some cases up to 2-3 years without any charge or trial, and send them back to their supposed homeland, like Cambodia, leaving wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, and their young children in utter financial and psychological devastation. Often these K.E.A.s (Khmer Exiled Americans) had never seen Cambodia until they were escorted off the airplane by the agents at the Phnom Penh International Airport.

Please ask the White House why they try to silence this issue in manners that do not honor democracy.

Video “My Asian Americana”:

This video was produced by Studio Revolt.
Studio Revolt website:

For further information on Exiles in Cambodia:
Spoken Kosal website:

Holiday in Cambodia

From Wikipedia: “Holiday in Cambodia” was the second single by the American punk band Dead Kennedys. The record was released in May 1980 on Alternative Tentacles with “Police Truck” as the b-side. The title track was re-recorded for the band’s first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980), and the version that appeared on this single, as well as the single’s b-side, are available on the rarities album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (1987). The cover picture of the single is taken from the 6 October 1976 Massacre in Thailand, and depicts a member of the rightist crowd beating the corpse of a student protester with a metal chair.

The song attacks both Eastern totalitarianism and Western complacency. The song’s lyrics offer a satirical view of young, self-righteous Americans (So you been to school/For a year or two/And you know you’ve seen it all/In daddy’s car/Thinkin’ you’ll go far…) and contrast such a lifestyle with a brutal depiction of the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia (Well you’ll work harder/With a gun in your back/For a bowl of rice a day/Slave for soldiers/Till you starve/Then your head is skewered on a stake).

So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car
Thinkin’ you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl

Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but its life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife

You’re a star-belly sneech
You suck like a leach
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch
So you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you

Well you’ll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
‘Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son.

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, etc.

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul