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Directive proves confusing

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A sign posted yesterday at the entrance to the restaurant Freebird alerts customers that no music will be played, nor will any alcohol be served, out of respect for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

During the past couple of days, diners opening up the menu at Freebird, an American-styled bar and eatery on Street 240 near the Royal Palace, found an all-caps notice tucked in amid the list of hamburgers and happy hour specials.

“IN RESPECT FOR THE BELOVED KING FATHER’S MOURNING PERIOD. NO ALCOHOL WILL BE SOLD AND NO MUSIC WILL BE PLAYED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.”

The American owner, known to his friends as “Dunk”, said he was following a government directive that is in effect from October 17-23.

It bans clubs, karaoke bars, restaurants and other entertainment places from playing loud music or having noisy public concerts out of respect for King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack on October 15 in Beijing.

“This is the first time in seven years we haven’t played music. No tunes, but it’s an important thing,” he said, standing outside the restaurant and wearing a black ribbon of mourning.

The sale of alcohol is not banned in the directive, but the extent to which Dunk and other business owners in the city are respecting the mourning period reflects, in part, the ambiguous messages from authorities about what’s allowed and what isn’t.

“A lot of our guests are coming in and saying, why aren’t we selling booze, everybody else is?” The regulars are right. Khieu Khanarith, the Minister of Information, has said owners should just forgo playing “disco or hip hop”. And Long Dimanche, spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipality, told the Post yesterday that any alcohol ban was probably a “misunderstanding”.

Still, the messages seemed to differ depending on the recipient – or depending on a place’s reputation for rowdiness.

At the Ponleu Thmei Beer Garden in the capital’s Toul Kork district, for example, the legendarily disorderly behaviour of some customers has led to an unusually specific request.

“The local authorities came to us and asked the clients to avoid getting drunk and shooting guns, because it is not appropriate,” said an employee who asked not to be named.

Nowhere, however, did the rules sound more enigmatic than at the popular riverside pub Paddy Rice, whose general manager, Susi Phipps, said the restaurant reached out to local police for information about the directive.

Initially, they had been asked to close the restaurant entirely, which would have been difficult, she said, given the fact that the business also rents hotel rooms. The authorities then said it could remain open, but would have to cancel all live music events and keep the volume down.  

The guidelines only grew murkier.

“They told us we couldn’t sell food, but we could sell a little bit,” she said. “They told us we couldn’t sell alcohol, but we could sell a little bit.”

All the businesses that the Post spoke to reported a decline of revenue as a result of the regulations and blocked-off streets around the Royal Palace, creating a labryinth of barricades.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com and Vong Sokheng at sokheng.vong@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Stuart White 

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