SOU SOVEARY, a 23-year-old literature student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh,
spends her evenings as most do from her generation - watching television.
Thai soap operas and mini-series are her favorites. Compared to low-budget Cambodian
fare, Thai programs have studio sets that look like real homes and the acting is
far superior, she explains. Leading actors and actresses dress in stylish clothes,
and when they fall in love, Soveary can feel the emotion in her own heart.
"The Thais have good traditions, even in greetings..., which they do in a soft
way," she says. "Before Thai film stars embrace each other for the first
time, they flirt and play as they fall in love."
Cambodian TV relationships, on the other hand, are dry and boring because the roles
of man and woman are always the same, she complains.
The most obvious expression of Soveary's viewing tastes are her clothes, which mimic
the style of the liberated female characters she admires from the television.
Soveary's love of foreign culture is typical, according to Cambodian scholars, and
part of an alarming trend in younger generations to ignore their own culture in favor
of a surrogate.
Professor Hang Soth, director of the Ministry of Culture's department of arts, says
the flood of foreign media, products and culture is accelerated by a culture void
in Cambodia left by decades of civil war.
"Everything falls into decline when a country is torn by war, and I realize
that our culture is declining," he says. "Culture is like water, which
always flows to the lowest land."
As Cambodians gain more extra cash to spend on radios, televisions and imported clothing,
they are particularly attracted to Thai culture because of its historical similarity.
"I think we cannot blame Thailand. We must understand that people in every country
will always try to build up their own nation," Hang Soth says. "Our people
are poor and they have almost forgotten their national identity. They unknowingly
accept all cultures from the outside, both good and bad elements."
He criticizes a trend among Cambodian singers to mimic popular Thai songs from the
Thai programs broadcast on the military television station Channel 5, the state-run
Channel 3 and on private stations.
"Even our own ears, eyes and mouths are being used to spread Thai culture,"
the professor laments. "Cambodians simply believe all things Thai are good,
while Cambodian things are bad."
The professor theorizes that Cambodian society's weak cultural bonds and political
factionalism has created a spiraling problem which stands in the way of solving today's
political problems. He cites as an example the failed bids to negotiate a ceasefire
between government and resistance forces battling along the Thai border.
"People lacking strong cultural morality can kill each other much more easily,
even if the cause is something very minor," the professor says.
Sum Chhumbun, a literature professor at Phnom Penh university, is also worried that
Cambodia's youth are getting too large a dose of candy-coated Thai culture.
The trend was fueled by a Khmer-dubbed Thai television serial Yeay Vorneath ("Grandmother
Vorn-eath"), which featured characters with seemingly huge wardrobes of modern
clothes. The show is no longer running in Cambodia, but it was hugely popular.
Sum Chhumbun says the effects of the show's success can be seen every day at the
university. Students - especially girls - are changing their hairstyles to match
the characters of Thai shows such as Yeay Vorneath, and they go to great lengths
to purchase expensive Thai clothing worn on the program. "Some of the students
have sold their virginity to get money to buy clothes like Yeay Vorneath's,"
the professor says.
Nowadays, a Thai soap opera whose name roughly translates to 'Honest Love in the
Thai Countryside', is perhaps most popular. Compared to Khmer productions, its high
quality - of script, acting, the sets and the filming - has won many Cambodian fans.
Minister of Culture Nouth Narang says his ministry has identified ways to preserve
and promote Khmer culture, but without the support of the government treasury, it
will be difficult to compete for viewer attention with profit-minded TV stations.
"I planned for [a ministry television and radio] station to be very discriminating
when it comes to what businesses would be allowed to advertise," Nouth Narang
says. "We would not accept advertisements except those that are related to improving
A ministry request for a radio tower and television station to promote Khmer culture
was denied by the Ministry of Information, he says.
But he hopes to set up theaters in Phnom Penh and the provinces to play Cambodian
films. "I believe that Cambodians now are bored with watching TV at home. If
we show them films in the cinema or if we can arrange live performances in theaters,
I think people will respond to it."
But without money, none of these ideas will take off. The Ministry of Culture's 1998
budget shrunk 3% from last year, and the chance of surplus government money being
earmarked for culture is slim-to-none.
In the meantime, Nouth Narang says Cambodia will have to face the realities of cultural
globalization in the information age. Hang Soth agrees, saying that the amount of
foreign media coming into Cambodia will only increase as more young people discover
cheap cable TV and the Internet.
"Stopping the invasion of foreign culture is like trying to stop a heavy rain
- you cannot do it," he says. "But hopefully you can find a way to protect
yourself from getting wet."