In Cambodia, Comedians Double as Government Propagandists

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In the state-aligned media that dominates the country's airwaves, enormously popular comedians, often bearing the rank of colonel in the prime minister's personal bodyguard unit, inject the party line into Cambodian popular culture


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- One recent Sunday afternoon, television audiences across Cambodia watched a middle-aged man named Krem as he was introduced to the mother of his young girlfriend.

The mother, Oeurn, looked dubiously at her daughter's poorly dressed, extravagantly mustachioed suitor.

"How did you spend the Cambodian New Year?" Oeurn asked him.

"I went to Preah Vihear," Krem replied, referring to a contested 11th century temple on the Thai border that has sparked several skirmishes between Cambodian and Thai forces over the past few years. "We performed comedy for the soldiers who protect us from Thai invasion. I would like to ask the New Year's angel to protect our soldiers and let them defeat the enemy."

A bit later, Krem abruptly announced to Oeurn, "Phnom Penh municipality now has less garbage and is cleaner. Do you know who did that?"

"Who?"

"It is because of Excellency Kep Chuktema, the governor. He has educated people and broadcast it on television not to litter, so now there is less garbage and no more bad smell."

It might not be precisely how every Cambodian villager addresses his prospective mother-in-law, but the exchange was par for the course on Bayon TV, where Krem's wildly popular comedy troupe performs a similar sketch every week, with goofy domestic scenarios routinely breaking into extravagant praise for government policy or officials aligned with the ruling Cambodian People's Party. The propaganda became even more pointed in late April, during 13 days of deadly border clashes with Thai forces.

Bayon, owned by the daughter of Cambodia's strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, is not alone: this kind of politicized comedy is shown on all of the country's eight television stations -- performed by comedians who, frequently, are also paid members of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit. Many of the comedians bear the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel.

The country's dozens of "colonel comedians" underscore the extent to which Hun Sen and his CPP have consolidated power over the past two decades, successfully marginalizing not just rival politicians but also dissenting artistic and cultural voices.

"It is further evidence of the deep reach of Hun Sen's personal networks of loyalties, and the growing difficulty of doing opposition politics in Cambodia," said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds.

In 1997, Hun Sen -- who then served as co-prime minister in a coalition government with a royalist political party, Funcinpec -- staged a bloody coup, ousting his counterpart, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Although Ranariddh was eventually allowed to return, Funcinpec suffered heavy losses in subsequent elections and never recovered. More recently, in 2009 and 2010, the government filed two separate lawsuits against Sam Rainsy, a liberal politician popular among urbanites and expatriate Cambodians. Rainsy, who had emerged as the new leader of the opposition, was ultimately sentenced to a total of 12 years in prison, leaving him in de facto exile in France. And over the past few years, the government has systematically sued activists, journalists, and critics of every ilk, levying steep fines or jail terms (one man was sentenced to two years for suggesting that a new lighting system at Angkor Wat could harm the 12th-century temple).

Although most of the colonel comedians' skits and sketches are only sporadically political, they sometimes venture into deeper ideological waters. In 2009, after U.S. Ambassador Carol Rodley infuriated the government with a speech on corruption, both Krem and his equally famous counterpart Koy launched a series of comedy routines that bitingly mocked international NGOs for their own corruption problems.

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Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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