You might have heard of Denny Kwan, the music video actress who was banned from working in April this year for dressing too provocatively. The commotion started in June of last year, when Kwan was summoned to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to be “educated” about her revealing attire on local media. When it seemed the lessons didn’t work, the Ministry found a different way to cover her up – with a temporary ban on all her entertainment activities.
Kwan’s fashion choice is not the only unusual thing to have been banned in Cambodia: join us down the rabbit hole as we look at the other unusual things outlawed in the Kingdom.
1. Opinion polls
Shortly before the commune elections this year, the National Election Committee issued a strong reminder to foreign media and NGOs that opinion polls and voter surveys were banned seven days before the commune elections. This was so there would be a “calm and peaceful election”, without affecting voter opinions unduly. While it isn’t unusual for the Cambodian government to ban election-related reports in the few days surrounding the elections, this appears to be the first time opinion polls have been explicitly banned.
Once every few years (two times in 2016, once in 2011, and once in 2009), the Ministry of Information seems to issue a ban on various songs, citing reasons ranging from “obscenity” to “creating hostility”. Two of the more recent bans include: a song that leads children astray by singing about truancy – a parody of an 1980s public service song, “Stay Hygienic” – and a song that devalues the national sport of boxing. Commenting on the ban on the truancy song, OuVirak, founder of the Future Forum, said: “The Ministry of Information has lost purpose and are basically trying to continue to be relevant.”
3. Beauty pageants
After running for two years, the government banned the Miss Landmine contest in 2009, claiming that it mocked the “honour and prestige” of handicapped people. Miss Landmine was a beauty pageant that featured women who had lost limbs to landmines, and had created controversy over whether it exploited or celebrated landmine victims. And in 2006, the Prime Minister banned the “Miss Cambodia” contest, citing various reasons, including the need to focus on alleviating poverty and “bad luck”. While the ban hasn’t been officially lifted, a pageant was launched last year.
4. Taiwanese and Tibetan flags
Even flags are subject to the Cambodian government’s scrutiny, as Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the banning of the Taiwanese and Tibetan flags this year. This is in line with Cambodia’s support of the “One China” principle, which asserts China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and mainland China, including states with separatist movements. Speaking on the policy, Hun Sen said, “In the case of Taiwan, I request that Khmer-Chinese refrain from celebrating Taiwanese holidays and brandishing the Taiwanese flag, as it is prohibited.”
5. “Samurai” swords
Once the weapon of choice by Cambodian youth gangs, this all came to an end when the government decided that the brutal attacks in the capital had become too much of a problem and banned them in 2009. The so-called “samurai” swords used to be widely available in Phnom Penh, with local craftsmen skilled enough to take on the world’s finest, but now, nary a blade can be found in markets. Many market vendors were heavily impacted by the ban.
6. Breast milk
In 2016, some Cambodian women began selling their breast milk to Utah-based Ambrosia Labs for about $7 to $10 a day, so they could support their families. Part of a global trend, the market serves mothers who are unable to produce breast milk, bodybuilders, cancer patients and even breast milk-fetishists. After the industry grew larger, it caught the attention of the Council of Ministers, who suspended sales of breast milk.
7. Foreigners behaving badly
Tourists to the ancient site of Angkor Wat often get into trouble with the Cambodian authorities, mostly for indecent exposure. In 2015, two American sisters were banned from the Kingdom for four years after being caught with their pants down at the Preah Khan temple. They are just two of many tourists charged with the same misdemeanour.
8. Rice wine
After several villagers were poisoned from rice wine in 2010, causing seven deaths and 33 injuries, the authorities banned the sale, manufacture, and consumption of rice wine across some villages in Prey Veng province’s Sithor Kandal district. This is not an isolated incident in Cambodia, with many incidents of tainted rice wine killing people, including an incident where rice wine was found to have an “abnormally high” level of methanol.
9. Thai chicken
After the discovery of chicken preserved in formalin – a solution of formaldehyde, which is used for embalming – in Thailand, border officials banned imports of Thai chicken in 2011. Some effects of consuming formalin chicken include: skin irritation, stomach inflammation, vomiting and diarrhoea, while prolonged consumption could cause cancer, sterility and damage to the nervous system.
10. Marriage to Koreans
With the discovery of human trafficking rings intended to send brides to Korea, officials banned marriage between Cambodian women and South Korean men in 2010 for about a month. This is the second time the Cambodian government has banned marriage between Cambodian women and foreign nationals; in 2008, there was an eight-month ban of marriages to all foreigners.