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?"
"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.
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."
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
This article available online at: