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Sonando's Beehive abuzz with free speech

Sonando's Beehive abuzz with free speech

Sonando.jpg
Sonando.jpg

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."

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