While the ruling Cambodian People’s Party suffers from no shortage of celebrity endorsements, the Cambodia National Rescue Party has none. Opposition party members and skeptical observers say that superstars are pressured by their bosses to toe the party line. Bennett Murray and Cheang Sokha report.
Rania, one of South Korea’s star girl groups, took the stage at Bayon TV’s Stung Meanchey Studio last Sunday night to a crowd of more than 1,000 K-pop fans. With a growing fan base around the world, they have even enlisted Snoop Dogg to perform on their debut US track later this year.
The band came to Cambodia after receiving an invitation from Bayon TV’s director general Hun Mana, who is also the daughter of Prime Minister Hun Sen and husband of Dy Vichea, the Cambodian People’s Party candidate for Svay Rieng province and son of the late high ranking General Hok Lundy.
According to the band’s schedule, before leaving the country on Monday, they met with Hun Mana and a group of fans.
When asked if RaNia’s acceptance of the invitation just weeks before the national election could be interpreted as an endorsement of the CPP, Glenn Lasalle, RaNia’s general manager, said that the group had no political intentions.
“We had no idea it was election season,” said Lasalle at a July 13 press conference, adding that they only attended to hold a Korean-Cambodian friendship concert.
Bayon TV program manager and concert organiser Kong Visal could not be reached for comment.
Regardless of the group’s intentions, some see the visit as one of many indications of the strong hold the CPP has over the entertainment industry.
During the election campaign, Cambodian celebrities– from singers to comedians– have participated in CPP youth events and posted campaign photos on their Facebook accounts.
Karona Pich, a popular Khmer singer on the major networks, told 7Days that his own political views shape his vocal support for the CPP.
“I observed that only the ruling CPP has achieved lots of development in the country,” said Pich.
“For the other political party, I have never known them. They were just created about a year ago, so how can we believe them?”
Pich said that his political views have not affected his standing with the networks, but that he faces criticism on Facebook.
“I have observed that there is some discrimination against me on Facebook, but I also have people support me about my participation with the youth of the CPP.”
Monovithya told the Post earlier this month that Facebook is one area where the Cambodia National Rescue Party dominates.
But others have criticised the very visible ties between celebrities and the ruling party.
“The CPP does know that Cambodian youths love entertainment, especially Korean pop music, plus some 1.5 million Cambodian youths are new voters,” said Ou Ritthy, a 26-year-old research assistant to the US-based political science faculty at Chapman University and the University of Southern California.
“It is not coincidental that RaNia has come to Cambodia in this particular point of time,” said Ritthy, who is also a former monitoring officer at the NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel).
“Entertainment has been one of the most successful and attention-grabbing strategies of the CPP during the election campaign. Cambodian celebrities including singers, actors, actresses, comedians, traditional singers, Ayai [a popular Khmer artform involving a comedic duel between performers] singers and so on have been working for the CPP to attract support and love from voters.”
While the party makes no secret of its widespread celebrity endorsements (Cambodian pop star Nop Panharith sung Hun Sen’s karaoke campaign video released in June, for example), others say that they are nothing more than a result of manipulation and coercion in the media.
Koul Panha, head of Comfrel, said that CPP influence in the media creates a situation where entertainers must support the ruling party for the sake of their careers.
“Most [entertainers] are very dependent on the TV shows, and the owners and managers are very strong for the CPP.”
He cited the case of Pok Sareth, a comedian better known by his stage name Lorsy, whose career took off in 2009 after publicly defecting from Funcipec to the CPP in an open letter of apology to Hun Sen. Before his 2011 death in a motorbike accident, he was made a lieutenant colonel in Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.
Ritthy said that the pressure to support the ruling party tends to be indirect.
“It is very hard for celebrities or renowned persons to be neutral or independent in Cambodia. Entertainment stars are indirectly forced to join the CPP to avoid losing lucrative careers in the entertainment sectors, and avoid accusations of being opposition party members.”
Panha added that gullible fans may not recognise the bias.
“Some people maybe don’t know the situation of the TV stars and the singers, and maybe feel that they want to support the star by supporting the [CPP].”
Kem Monovithya, deputy director of the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s public affairs, which runs the youth wing, said she knew of no entertainers who publicly supported the opposition party.
“It would be the end of their careers if they supported us,” she said.
However, Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesman, said that claims of political coercion within the television networks are baseless and television personalities support the CPP out of free will.
But regardless of the CPP’s use of the entertainment industry in campaigning, Yim Sovann, CNRP spokesman, said he thinks Cambodian youth are clever enough to not be swayed by celebrity endorsements. “I don’t think [celebrities] are contributing to the demands of the young people,” said Sovann. “[Youth] think about their jobs, their future.”