When election time comes around in Cambodia, you can expect to hear music containing political messages coming from cars, trucks and busses all around the Kingdom.
The strategy of using music to lead political campaigns dates back to the Khmer Rouge, when the violent regime would play songs promoting Khmer Rouge policy. Musicians were forced to write and perform songs celebrating the ideals of an agrarian society ruled by the regime.
Political parties today use music to spread the word about the policies of their organisations and how voting for them will make Cambodia a better place. In the 2008 elections, each party sent out speakers on wheels to spread the word of their platform.
“During the 2008 election campaigns, music was part of attracting people to be interested in our party because people are naturally interested in music,” said Cheam Yeap, a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker, adding that even if people do not remember the lyrics, which praise the CPP, they will at least remember that they were about the CPP.
The CPP has released a variety of songs, ranging from classical styles to pop music. In fact, even Prime Minister Hun Sen and some of his party members have written songs about the actions and future improvement of Cambodia.
But it is not only the ruling CPP that uses music to pull in voters. Opposition parties such as the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) also use music to make their voice heard. “Music is a method of communication that is easier than speaking,” said Son Chhay, a SRP lawmaker.
He went on to explain that the music makes each party more recognisable, as it is easy to understand and leaves people with a good feeling.
The effectiveness of music as a tool to persuade people has led to increasing political influence over the artistic arena, Son Chhay said.
“Music is an important tool to gain votes, and that is why the government tries to put pressure on artists,” he said, adding that as music has become more politicised, the government has prevented some artists and actors from singing or performing on stage, TV or on the radio to promote other parties.
As an added level of scrutiny, any political song must be vetted by political party committees before it can be released publicly.
Ell Bunna, a songwriter who composes modern and pop songs for political parties, said, “We compose music for the party we support to help promote the objective of the party”.
He added that music is particularly effective to pull in voters in a relatively undeveloped country like Cambodia.
“Cambodians have limited education, which is not like developed countries where people understand politics in a deeper way. Cambodians’ understanding is based on publicity, which partly involves music to guide people in their decision making,” Ell Bunna said.
“This makes the inability of parties like the SRP to make music even more of a handicap as the 2012 elections approach.”
Loch Sokly, a student at Preah Kossamak Polytechnic Institute, said, “During the elections, I hear the songs of each party, and I want to know more about that”, adding that these tunes awaken people’s desire to know more about the political parties.
“But I choose my representatives by their works for my country,” he said.