In Cambodia, Comedians Double as Government Propagandists

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Still, in one of the troupe's recent shows, entitled "No Luck," a comedian known as Klouk (real name Lieutenant Colonel Tum Saruth), who was playing an elderly father, began talking politics almost as soon as he walked onstage.

"We just want to stay in peace, but [Thailand] does not want us to stay in peace -- they caused trouble, so now I have to go participate in the army and protect our territory from invasion," Klouk told a rapt studio audience, using exaggerated martial gestures to elicit gales of laughter.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, a local NGO, said comedians such as Koy and Krem are immensely popular with Cambodian viewers, who don't always have many other entertainment options.

"It's very strange that many comedians, I mean famous comedians, become bodyguards with a military rank," he said. "People know it -- the prime minister gives public information about the comedians being bodyguards -- but they control the TV and ordinary people have no choice but to watch them."

Panha pointed out that all of Cambodia's eight TV stations are linked to the CPP in some way, creating a "very limited playing field" for opposition parties.

A decade ago, when Funcinpec was a more serious contender for power, it had its own comedian-affiliates. But as the party has dwindled over the past few years, its comedians have all defected to the CPP.

The best known of them, Lorcy, struggled for years to find work after campaigning for Funcinpec during the 2003 election season. He claimed he had been blacklisted from the airwaves and feared for his life. In 2009, he defected from Funcinpec and published an open letter of apology to Hun Sen through General Bunheang. His career immediately picked up. Krem invited him to join his troupe for a guest appearance, and now Lorcy regularly performs on two government-affiliated stations. On April 1, he became a lieutenant colonel in the bodyguard unit.

"I was really regretful of my mistake, which was why I apologized for forgiveness to be given to Samdech [Hun Sen]'s child, me," said Lorcy, using a Cambodian honorific that roughly translates as "Lord." "Samdech is a great leader. He forgave me for my mistake, which was done by accident, and I made a commitment to sacrifice my life to serve the party and Samdech."

Lorcy said he planned to devote the next stage of his career to "make and spread propaganda and send messages to people over the party's and Samdech's accomplishments."

Panha and Sochua said cases like Lorcy's showed that there was little freedom of expression for those whose views stray from the party line.

"It's a form of political discrimination," said Sochua, who noted that the comedians draw their military salaries from the national budget. "Every element that is painted as opposition is faced with this discrimination. It is a very sad state for democracy."

But Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, dismissed this criticism, saying that comedians and entertainers merely held a strong preference for the ruling party.

"Comedians can be CPP members and they do whatever they feel like doing to support the party. That's their own choice."

He said the government never dictated the content of comedy routines: "We are too busy to tell them to do this, to do that."

By all accounts, they don't need to.

"We work for the prime minister, so why should we perform for Sam Rainsy?" asked Krem. "If we eat a person's food, we have to work for that one."

Neou Vannarin and Kuch Naren contributed reporting from Phnom Penh

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Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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