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Democracy from the charpey's strings

Democracy from the charpey's strings

THERE will be musical echoes from the 1993 elections for this year's poll, as Prach

Chhun will again plucks his strings to explain in song about the electoral process.

During UNTAC Chhun sang about the principles of human rights, the right to vote and

the right to choose any candidate people wanted.

"They [UNTAC] hired me to sing about the multi-party elections and how voters

could change the members of Parliament," he said.

Now the blind musician is again being called on to inform people about elections,

but this time by the government. He's looking forward to the role.

"Today I sing about the preparations for the elections and the main point of

the songs is that the elections are being run by the Khmers and not by foreign countries,"

though he adds that "[the foreigners] can help us."

Chhun is keen to stress that his role in the elections is strictly an educational

one. "When I play the charpey (string instrument) I cannot support any of the

parties. I have to stay neutral."

In the past he has also been hired by NGOs to sing about human rights, women's rights,

children's rights and politics. UNTAC paid him $40 for a 20-minute singing engagement.

Chhun's electoral role is only a small part of his professional life.

He has been playing the charpey for nearly 50 years.

He took it up as a child after he went blind following a high fever.

He has been with the National Radio department since 1962 and it was at that time

he got his nickname: Phirum. He said the director of National Radio, Duch Sidem,

wrote a letter to the King saying he should be called Phirum - the man who is good

at making the words in songs rhyme.

During the Pol Pot years he was sent back to his home in Samor village, Takeo province.

Angka had him feeding pigs, sewing thatch, cutting firewood and making roof tiles.

"As I was one of the new people from Phnom Penh who they called April 17 people,

they hurt and threatened me.

"I still don't understand why I wasn't killed," he said.

Recently Chhun has been taking his talents to a wider audience.

He has recently returned from a four-month tour of France and America, sponsored

by the Buddhist Association.

Despite his own success Chhun is now concerned about the future of the charpey.

He says with competition from the likes of karaoke and video, less people are learning

how to play it.

Chhun wants young Khmer to support the national instrument, however he does not blame

the audiences for its decline in popularity.

"The string player will soon be finished. I do not blame the listeners, I blame

the players because it is very difficult to find a man who can play the stringed

instrument well," he said.

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