In Cambodia, Comedians Double as Government Propagandists

In 2005, Krem created a routine called "Be Careful Not to Overuse Your Rights" that cast aspersions on human rights workers who teach Cambodian villagers about equality. And, during every election season, the comedians barnstorm around the countryside on the CPP's behalf.

General Hing Bunheang, commander of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, an autonomous section within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, confirmed that the unit had a bureau called the "Propaganda and Education Commission." It comprised 152 performers and artists, including the bulk of the country's comedians.

"Most of them are men, and they have the same rank as colonels. They have their own weapons," he said. As soldiers, the comedians "can go to battle with Thailand if there is a need," he added.

They can also misuse their weapons: In April, the popular comedian San Mao, also known as Colonel Thu Chamrong, was detained in Phnom Penh after firing his military-issue handgun in the air during a brawl. Police quickly released him, suggesting that the bodyguard unit discipline him.

According to General Bunheang, artists receive personal invitations from Hun Sen to join the unit and sometimes perform for audiences free of charge at the premier's request. He insisted that the members of the Propaganda and Education Commission are not engaged in propaganda.

"The bodyguard group is not for political propaganda but for entertaining people," he said.

Mu Sochua, a prominent opposition lawmaker, laughed at Bunheang's claim. Sochua had herself narrowly avoided a jail term after she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and convicted of defaming the prime minister in 2009.

"It's a form of propaganda," she said. "It's not art, it's not promoting freedom of expression in the arts. ... The language that is used by the comedians, and sometimes even the gestures and the movements, convey a lot of power and authority and violence. And the message is all about good and evil."

Krem, the stage name of Colonel Ou Bunnarith, is a case in point. Perhaps the most passionately partisan of all the comedians, he displays an almost missionary zeal for winning converts to the CPP.

"Convincing people via artistic performances is very successful, and it is easy to take people out from their misbehavior or participation with the wrong political parties," he said in an interview.

Krem has been a household name in Cambodia since the 1980s, when the nation was only a few years removed from the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime and in the thick of a civil war with the movement's militant remnants. That is also when Krem first joined the Hun Sen bodyguards, which dispatched him to perform shows in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas to encourage defections.

"We were there to perform for the Khmer Rouge soldiers and propagandize for those soldiers to return to their motherland," he said. "We did political propaganda in our performances, and our words made them pleased."

Now that the Khmer Rouge have been eliminated, with the regime's four surviving senior leaders soon to be tried in Phnom Penh for war crimes, Krem applies his comedic talents toward ridiculing the country's rapidly shrinking political opposition. During the 2003 national election campaign, he produced and acted in a two-hour film called Mistletoe that lampooned both Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, portraying the former as a pleasure-seeking sycophant and the latter as an out-of-control meddler. In the lead-up to local elections in 2002, he created a short film that made fun of garment workers who protested in the streets for better wages.

"When the election campaign comes, we have to do a hundred percent propagandizing for ... the CPP," he said.

Koy, the stage name of Colonel Chuong Chy, a doughy, thick-featured man, is also active on behalf of the government. Of the four men in the comedy troupe that Koy leads, three of them -- including Kren, a popular comedian with dwarfism -- belong to the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit. The fourth is an officer in the 70th Infantry Brigade of the Cambodian army, which is also closely linked to the premier and has been accused of human rights abuses.

Like Krem, Koy joined the bodyguards in the 1980s, starting out as a captain and rising to colonel two years ago in a mass promotion of entertainers. In person, he is terse and severe, rarely cracking a smile. Although he openly describes the work he does as propaganda, he insists his troupe writes all its own skits with no government input.

"We just tell people how good [Hun Sen] is, how he constructed the country, how many buildings he builds," Koy told me backstage after one of his performances, fiddling irritably with the keys to his Lexus. "Nobody tells us what to say. We just describe what we have seen- -- roads, schools, irrigation -- and make it a little bit funny."

Standing nearby was Koy's longtime friend, Colonel Chhum Bunchhoeurn of the 70th Infantry, still sporting painted-on white whiskers and eyebrows. Colonel Bunchhoeurn, best known by the stage name Banana, agreed that any political overtones to the group's comedy were totally coincidental.

"We don't have time to talk about [politics] because we're just concerned about striving to make people laugh," he said. "If we pretend to be a father, we're just concerned with being a father."

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Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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