​From strongman to songman: Hun Sen pens the blues | Phnom Penh Post

From strongman to songman: Hun Sen pens the blues


Publication date
30 January 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Chea Sotheacheath

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The Roman Emperor Nero had his violin, the current American President Bill Clinton

his saxophone - world leaders have long since taken to music as a break from the

affairs of state. Chea Sotheacheath reports that Cambodian leader Hun Sen

is also no stranger to the musical arts.

A spare moment is all it takes for Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to pen another song.

Since he began composing in 1989 about 80 songs have been created and while not all

have been published those that have been fill four volumes of cassettes.

Cambodian life and development are predominant themes in the music and Hun Heng (no

relation), who advises the Prime Minister about his song writing, says Hun Sen's

approach is always serious.

"Samdech has deep ideas about his songs. He mostly uses profound words in the

lyrics rather than simple ones."

He says Hun Sen writes songs as soon as the mood takes him - sometimes he is on a

airplane, other times he just grabs a piece of paper and writes, usually finishing

in less than hour.

And he says Hun Sen has very definite ideas about music.

"I used to write thousands of pages of songs and poems, and it was very rare

that someone corrected me. But when I write songs and submit them to [Hun Sen], he

does correct me."

Heng says the songs give Hun Sen a chance to relate something of his life and express

his feelings on the events of the times.

He says the song "The Life of the Pagoda Boy" describes Hun Sen as a boy

who is forced to leave Kampong Cham so he could stay at Phnom Pehn's Neakawan pagoda

and go to school.

"Pity the life of the pagoda boy, coming from the countryside and poverty.

"Dependent on the monk in the pagoda, living by the rice of the monk's bowl."

But the song finishes on a note of hope.

"Do not be disappointed with the rich children. I must try hard to learn then

I would be valuable... the pagoda boy will have a bright future."

Meanwhile the same message is reinforced in the TV video of the song - a boy who

represents Hun Sen is taken to a pagoda by his father in an oxen cart but at the

end the boy has an excellent job, is well dressed and sits in a large, important


A song with a more political message is "The Road Crossing the Field."

"I feel nostalgic because I miss [you]... I see you having a bath and you turn

your back [to me]...

I am so shocked because darling you told me you loved me no more.... of course you

love me no more but I still care to go to you to build the road for you."

Heng says this is a message of reconciliation to the people who voted for other parties

in the 1993 election.

"I think, through this song, Samdech wants to show that he is not angry with

the people who had been with him in the past and switched sides.

"Samdech still likes to build the bridges or roads for them," Heng says,


He also writes about respect for peace and human rights.

"Bravo! The culture day of peace... respect human rights, respect the value

of the other [people and] of yourself too."

The song goes onto to say that without the protection of law and the constitution

the country will descend into anarchy.

Another personal song is "The sadness of the lady whose husband is away".

It is the story of Hun Sen and his wife when they were separated during the Pol Pot

regime. Hun Sen's wife was pregnant at the time and ended up giving birth in the

jungle without medicine or food.

"The lives of the farmer the fate of the rice planter" tells of his family's

difficulty growing up during the 1970s.

Hun Sen's farm was flooded and his family moved to work on a farm growing pineapple

and sugar cane. But they were bombed by US planes which destroyed all the plants.

After that Hun Sen farewelled his parents and went to join the liberation force in

the jungle.

Hun Sen is modest about his talent, saying it is limited to composition not performance.

"I don't know how to play music and I don't know how to sing," he says

in a letter to the Post.

He is unsure where the talent has come from. He says there are no artists in his

family background but that he likes "Khmer art and history".

However he has had some experience on the stage when he was in Kompong Cham province.

"From when I was 19-years-old and in the army I was a writer of "speaking

theater", the story leader, and I was also an actor [a poor actor]," he


But despite his own judgement of his abilities Hun Sen's songs are enjoying a marked

commercial success locally. The cassettes are available at the markets and sell as

well as any other.

A cassette seller at Phsa Thmei market, Chhin Sandam, says Hun Sen has his own fans.

" Most of people who come to buy these cassettes are women and they ask for

the song of "The sad lady whose husband is away"... maybe their lives are

similar to this song," she says.

Another cassette seller, Tong Kimchhay, says the cassettes began to sell well when

Hun Sen started to develop the Kraingyov village.

Hun Heng says there is a link between Hun Sen's rural developments and the popularity

of his songs which mention them.

He says people in rural areas like to hear the names of their villages and districts

and even ponds in a song.

"These people are happy when they hear their local names on air... they are

very proud because names of their villages or their rice fields are well known in

the country, so they like to listen."

Heng adds that others not so lucky are sometimes very jealous of their more famous


But Heng says a popular song needs more than just content to make it successful -

it needs to be well written, then well sung.

He says at least $100 is needed to record each song. The money is used to pay for

the singer, musicians and other expenses.

Khy Sokhan, 28, who works for the culture department, said she has sung about 30

of Hun Sen's song. She is paid from $20 to $30 each time.

She says it is not difficult to sing Hun Sen's songs because the lyrics are easy

and describe things.

However there is little chance of hearing Hun Sen sing his own songs.

"His voice is not a beautiful singing voice but he writes good songs,"

Heng says.

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