He's been a construction worker, a film student, a photographer and, briefly, a monk.
But Mam Sonando's business card is more succinct: he's the self-proclaimed Voice
of the People and he's got the arrest record to prove it.
The new National Assembly building will be inaugurated on July 7.
Born in 1942 in Kampong Cham province, Mam Sonando left for France in 1964 for education
and "adventure." He returned three decades later and launched his privately
owned Beehive Radio FM 105 as a business venture meant to cheer people up through
He soon changed his tune. In his words, social injustice and poverty forced him to
act. He created Khmers Help Khmers to provide "accurate information on poverty
and employment opportunities to poor Cambodians." Today his Sambok Khmum Radio
airs Buddhist programs, music, call-in talk shows, poetry and daily re-broadcasts
of the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
On June 25, the station began broadcasting programs of the Cambodian Center for Human
Rights, including Open Forum and Community Dialogue. Sonando was arrested on January
31, 2003, and held for 11 days on charges of incitement and defamation for called-in
remarks on a program that coincided with the anti-Thai riots. He was jailed again
on October 11, 2005, and held for 98 days, after he broadcast an interview in which
Sean Peng Se, president of the Paris-based Cambodian Border Committee, said "Unfortunately,
our leader Mr. Hun Sen is a communist." On freedom of the press in Cambodia,
Sonando told the Post: "The press is free on paper, in fact its a law - but
in reality it's not free at all. For the journalists who want to speak the truth
it doesn't exist at all. They offer us the right to speak, but they still reserve
the right to arrest us or kill us."
Sonando spoke to Charles McDermid and Sam Rith on June 20.
Why is there a huge disco ball hanging in your office?
I keep it here to keep it safe. When we have parties with the staff we take it outside.
It reminds me of my old discothéque in Paris.
What was it like to run a Khmer disco in Paris in the 1970s?
It was called the Apsara Club. It was in the 4th district of Paris near the Hotel
de Ville. Later I changed its name to Le Bouche à Oreille ("Word of Mouth").
I bought an apartment in 1974 and turned it into a photography studio, but in 1975,
when Pol Pot came to power in Phnom Penh I changed it into a discothéque.
At the time, I felt hopeless. Many of us thought we were going to lose the country,
and it was difficult to be in France. You can get used to losing money or failing
exams-this is normal, but losing your country is like a nightmare. It can make your
feelings complicated. I wanted to change from doing business to bringing happiness
to the Cambodian people. The disco was a place for Cambodians to come and meet each
other. But running a disco was a lot of hard work. I had to learn to mix drinks and
deal with gangsters, the Mafia, and the police. Sometimes customers would make noise
and wake up the neighbors. Everyone knows, Cambodians, after they drink, they make
a lot of noise.
Why did you return to Cambodia in 1994?
After living in France for 30 years, it was enough. I wanted to return to my home
country where I was born, and where I will die.
Why did you start Beehive Radio FM 105?
In France, I had a career as a businessman. In Cambodia I wanted to do that, too.
I was lucky to get permission to get the radio. Ieng Mouly [former Minister of Information]
was my good friend in France. I applied for the license in 1994 and got it in 1996.
At that time I knew a lot of people in the CPP. I thought of them like any other
governments and didn't want to work for them. I wanted the station for the same reason
I wanted the disco in France-I was a deejay and I wanted to bring fun to the Cambodian
people. But when I started, I didn't realize all the social problems in Cambodia.
After a time in Phnom Penh and going to the provinces I saw the gap of injustice
between the poor and the rich. I saw that powerful people ignore the poor people
and let them suffer.
I especially saw how leaders say untrue things. When I was in the same place I
saw different things.
Do you belong to a political party?
A lot of people are confused by me. In Cambodia, most people say one thing and do
the other. When I speak the truth, people accuse me of being SRP. When I interviewed
[Prince Norodom] Ranariddh many times, people said I am pro-Funcinpec. Now, when
I say things and don't get arrested again-people say I'm on the CPP side. Even now
people confuse me with a politician. But the truth is I don't belong to any party
at all. I am 100 percent a journalist. If I was a politician I'd have to get involved
in a party to gain power. As a journalist, I dare to speak even when other journalists
are afraid -even Sam Rainsy Party journalists. Let me be clear: I am not against
the government. I am independent, but not neutral-it is my goal to protect the Cambodian
And you put yourself at risk for this?
Cambodian people don't demand [what donors and NGOs say they need], they just want
rice to put in the pot. Even people who don't have rice, they still get exploited.
That is why I make sacrifices, to help the people.
Why were you arrested over the anti-Thai riots in 2003?
I went to jail for 11 days and was accused of "inciting" the riots at the
If the Thai actress said something, or if the Prime Minister or the King said something,
I would've broadcast it - but at the time, I didn't broadcast anything. We had one
program from 8 to 9 pm and we took a phone call in which a person said, "Thais
at the border are forcing Cambodians to drink fish sauce." The staff asked "How
do you know this?" And he answered "from my friend." For this I was
arrested for "inciting." But the Thai Embassy was already destroyed around
What were you thinking during the arrest?
It was 7:30 pm and two people in civilian clothes came into my office and said "my
boss wants to see you." I said why not come to my office and speak politely?
I went outside and they pushed me into a car, one guard sat near me and held me.
I was shocked. Then I noticed it was [former Phnom Penh police chief, now in jail]
Heng Pov in the front seat. He was talking into a walkie talkie. He said, "Now,
I've got him what do you want me to do?" After that we drove around Phnom Penh.
I was watching the people in the streets and thinking this is the last day for me.
I prepared myself: if they were to ask me to sign something I was prepared to say
go ahead and shoot me to death. After I prepared myself for death, I felt better.
Is the Cambodian press allowed to operate freely?
Recently, a Radio Free Asia reporters made Hun Sen angry. That's an example of press
freedom. I ask: if politicians enjoy the questions people ask, what is the value
of journalists? To make politicians happy? The officials who speak to journalists
can explain to the people the questions of the people that need to be answered. The
questions journalists ask should be considered the questions of the people.
What's your opinion of the Ministry of Information?
The Ministry doesn't provide information. All it does is serve the government.
What do you think of Kem Sokha's decision to form a new political party?
As a journalist, I will not participate. But as the Voice of the People, I will analyze
and help people understand. It depends on the people, if they want to get involved
with political parties. Kem Sokha used to be the head of human rights in Cambodia,
and he speaks about democracy. People wonder when Sam Rainsy can get a victory. Five
years ago he got 9 seats, now he has 18, in the next ten years how many can the people
expect? People are wondering. Kem Sokha has a new party; Sam Rainsy has an established
party but he has failed to get democrats to join together.
Political parties now say they are democratic, but actually their boss don't involve
anyone so people are reluctant to get involved in any party. They say Hun Sen is
autocratic, but Sam Rainsy is autocratic also. Some people accuse the SRP of being
one big decayed tree that won't let other trees grow up underneath it. Others say
the SRP is the party that makes the CPP win.
What are Cambodians telling you?
Now people talk about democracy. They're worried about political parties that say
they're democratic, but can't unite to win the election.
Another thing is land and violence. The third thing is prices going up and pollution.
People are concerned about chemicals in Thai and Vietnamese products that are smuggled
into the country.