Compared to when it emerged from the ashes following the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Phnom Penh is now a modern city, with a plethora of high rise buildings.
Along with these obvious signs of economic progress, many of the capital’s intersections are lit up at night by massive electronic billboards, among them thousands of gaudy adverts for alcohol.
In the context of Covid-19, messages are displayed on some signs offering advice on how to protect one’s health from the highly contagious disease. There are also displays featuring Prime Minister Hun Sen warning against corruption, among other educational messages. But the vast majority are adverts for new products, predominantly alcohol.
“If the beer billboards and other advertising could be removed, I think it would be great,” said Sophea, a teacher who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Sophea says he understands the remarkable changes that Phnom Penh has undergone – thanks to modernisation and development – but does not think there needs to be so much advertising.
“We could change the beer signage to images of the King or key words by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Tourist destinations from around the country should also be displayed, especially as we are expecting an influx of international visitors for next year’s SEA Games. If we promote the potential of our many tourist attractions, we will raise awareness of them among potential return visitors,” he suggested.
Sophea would like to see Phnom Penh replicate Kampong Speu’s policy of removing beer advertising in particular.
“It has made a contribution to reducing the number of people consuming alcohol. Promotions which advertise that prizes can be won by consuming more beers are especially dangerous,” he added.
Manet, a Phnom Penh resident in his mid-30 who also gave only his first name, sees the billboards as unsuitable for the predominantly Buddhist country.
“I do not think it is appropriate for a country where about 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist. According to the Buddha’s teachings, we should refrain from alcohol or drugs,” he said.
He also expressed growing concerns that foreigners may misunderstand that Khmer ancient temples are merely logos that appear on beer cans.
“Cultural treasures, such as famous temples, are stamped on beer cans. What would happen if, for example, someone in the future searched for the term Angkor Wat and the image search revealed nothing but beer bottles? Some people may believe that Angkor Wat is not a temple, but a beer company logo,” he said.
“Various designs related to our national identity should be displayed as much as possible. The more of these images we display, the more people will be reminded about what is unique about our Khmer identity – and this will lead them to love and preserve it,” he added.
An online campaign which promotes Khmer cultural heritage has been launched, but according to Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, this is not enough. He believed billboards should be used to showcase real scenery from around the Kingdom to visitors, along with its innumerable temples.
He said he understands that the state can collect tax on alcohol advertisements, but does not believe the small profit is worth it.
“I do not know exactly how much revenue is collected in Cambodia, but I know that in Thailand they examined the issue and determined that the costs to society caused by the effects of alcohol were not outweighed by the tax generated,” he said.
A spokesman from the Ministry of Commerce said that advertising hoardings and billboards are under the authority of Phnom Penh’s City Hall. Similarly, revenue collection does not fall under the jurisdiction of the commerce ministry. In the past, the ministry had had to apply for permission from Capital Hall to erect signs advertising trade fairs, he added.