Mam Sonando, founder of Beehive 105FM.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a woman walked quietly through a creaky iron gate and
approached a small table set in front of the offices of Beehive Radio. She handed
20,000 riels to the man at the desk, who recorded her name in a tattered notebook
on a long and growing list of contributors.
In exchange for her money the man handed her a small sticker bearing the words "Beehive
FM 105" and a printed appeal thanking the public for helping the station upgrade
its transmitter and stay on the air. Before she left, the man added a Buddhist blessing
in Khmer, pressed his hands together and bowed slightly as she returned the gesture.
"They come every day," said Chom Cha Wan, an employee of the station whose
job is to collect donations. "Maybe 500 people, maybe 800. They keep coming."
Kon Seak Liu, the housewife and shopkeeper who left the 20,000 riels, was quickly
followed by half a dozen more people, some leaving as little as a 1,000 riels, others
considerably more. It was enough traffic to keep two tables busy sorting the money,
recording the names, quietly blessing the contributors.
"We want this radio to grow, to increase," explained Kon Seak Liu before
leaving. "We want the information to spread. We believe this radio is true."
The man at the heart of Beehive Radio and a focus of devotion for Kon Seak Liu and
many others is an iconoclastic French-educated photographer, devout Buddhist, jazz-music
fan and unsuccessful former politician named Mam Sonando. His Beehive Radio is widely
considered to be the only independent radio station in Cambodia, an important platform
for contrary voices.
As such, it has drawn the anger of the government, attention from human-right advocates,
loyalty from listeners and, indirectly, money from funding agencies in Washington.
Mam Sonando himself is a figure of considerable complexity. When he returned to Cambodia
in 1993 after spending the better part of 30 years in Paris, he was looking for an
opportunity to use the newly opened democratic space that came with United Nations-supervised
democratic elections that year to do something interesting in his homeland.
But when Mam Sonando called on a personal connection with a government minister to
obtain a radio license, he used his media outlet, as so many others use the media
here, to launch a political career. He formed the Beehive Democratic Society Party
and contested the 1998 general elections.
Media observers at the time criticized him for using Beehive Radio as a personal
soapbox, and he gained a reputation as an eccentric, spouting Buddhist philosophy,
pleas for democracy and a personal campaign for attention.
His grandstanding on the radio was to no avail. The party won no seats in the National
Assembly in 1998 and he decided not to contest this year's polls. He dismantled the
political party and instead devoted Beehive Radio to becoming an independent media
operation. "The radio is important," he said. "It is not about my
politics or party any more."
Independent radio stations are in short supply. The Cambodian People's Party (CPP)
has a virtual lock on the airwaves, awarding broadcast licenses to cronies and comrades
through an opaque process that resides in the Information Ministry with no public
oversight. FUNCINPEC only last year was given a license to operate a radio station.
The efforts of Sam Rainsy's eponymous party to open a radio station have never gained
a favorable audience from the government.
As a rare-and now independent-broadcast voice, Beehive is a natural for international
agencies wanting to broaden the scope of democracy in Cambodia.
The station rebroadcasts three hours a day of Khmer-language news from the Voice
of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) and also carries programming from a local
human-rights group, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which receives
funding from the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC.
Air time is sold on a contract basis, and Mam Sonando admits that the foreign support
is a big help to his bottom line.
But it is not about the money, he said. In recent years, his commitment to Buddhism
has deepened, he said, and that is his inspiration now for the radio-and the source
of his appeal to the people who donate money to the station. Beehive Radio is one
way Mam Sonando "makes merit" through doing good works on Earth.
Two years ago he also constructed "Ashram Mam Sonando", a sizable Buddhist
temple and meditation hall inside the compound that houses the radio station and
his family home. The temple has become a center of Buddhist meditation in the city,
drawing a regular stream of devotees.
On a recent afternoon the garish temple, its walls decorated with hand-painted scenes
in DayGlo-style colors from the life of the Buddha and its altar bathed in twinkling
multi-colored lights, was being festooned with flowers and prayer flags in preparation
for a ceremony to donate food and clothing to local monks.
The ceremony was also timed to coincide with Beehive's ongoing drive for public donations
for the new transmitter facility. "Buddhism is also about politics," explained
Mam Sonando as work in the temple went on around him. "If you do good, good
will come to you. It is about karma, of course."
People seem to respond to the message. During his one-month appeal for donations,
Mam Sonando said he raised $10,000, mostly in very small cash gifts. "This is
very historic," he said. "Cambodia is a poor country and people usually
go to politicians asking for money. But here they give money to us. Just to keep
the radio going."
The fundraising campaign, coupled with air-time purchases from foreign agencies,
has been enough to upgrade the station from a one-kilowatt to a five-kilowatt transmitter,
in effect doubling or tripling the coverage area of Beehive Radio.
"Beehive used to have a scratchy signal even in Phnom Penh," said Andrew
Thornley, an adviser working with the CCHR. "With the new transmitter they can
be heard all over central Cambodia."
While Mam Sonando still goes on the air with his own pointed harangues against Hun
Sen, it is Beehive Radio as an institution that is important, according to Thornley
and others. During the recent election, the station was virtually the only one in
the country that offered air time to all major parties for round-table discussions
and call-in programs.
Through it all, Mam Sonando seems certain to continue drawing controversy. He has
frequently been warned by the government against airing VOA and RFA news, which CPP
loyalists consider anti-Hun Sen. Most recently, another of Beehive's rare features
for Cambodia-an open-mike call-in program allowing listeners to speak their minds
on air-got him in trouble.
So why does he bother, a visitor asked. Again he went back to his Buddhist philosophy.
"Nothing is permanent. We will all die," he said later, walking through
his temple. "The point is to choose how we will die and how we will live."
At the end of a long afternoon spent at Beehive Radio, a visitor paused again to
watch the quiet stream of people leaving small bits of cash at the tables outside.
Yee Tam, a minor official with the Phnom Penh City government brought $10, something
he had done regularly in the past month."Why? I give money because this radio
tells the truth," he said when asked about his motivation. "It is not afraid."