Facing an insurgency, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea began a propaganda campaign in the early 1980s to lure the resistance out of the jungle. Ros Kandavy became the voice of that cause.
In the uncertainty of the early 1980s, when armed groups hiding out in the jungles vied for control of the country and the fledgling Vietnamese-led People’s Republic of Kampuchea struggled to maintain stability, Ros Kandavy faced a choice.
After suffering under the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Srok district in Battambang province, would she return to her home in Phnom Penh, or heed the ominous warnings emanating from her fellow villagers?
“After the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, people had told me not to come to Phnom Penh, or I would be killed,” she said. “I did not care if I would be killed by Cambodians or Vietnamese. I would rather die as long as I could be back in my hometown.”
A few days after Khmer New Year in 1979, Kandavy arrived in Phnom Penh after reuniting with her family, finding it bore little resemblance to the killing field she’d heard of in Battambang. The dire accounts, as it turned out, had been rumours circulated by the Khmer Rouge.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Kandavy would devote much of the next decade to dispelling similar rumours, trying to persuade others to choose to leave as she once did.
With her brother’s help, she got a job at the National Radio of Kampuchea, where she became a newscaster. One day, a group of government officials came to the station, handed each newscaster a script and asked them to read it.
The script was an appeal to soldiers in the resistance and the families living in areas not under PRK control to give up their fight, as part of a fledgling propaganda campaign of the new government.
With the help of Soviet advisers, the PRK’s Motherland Appeal Programme – or Neaty Somleng Ompeavneav Robos Meataphum in Khmer – would reach ears in every corner of the country, as well as across the border in Thailand. It would be broadcast on every radio, and through loudspeakers positioned near resistance-held areas.
And Kandavy would be the voice calling the scattered remnants of war home.
Sitting in an office at the National Radio of Cambodia, her husband, Bou Vannarith, proudly recounts the decision to hire her. The two met at the station, where Kandavy taught him to read the news, and they worked together in radio until Vannarith’s retirement this year.
“The Soviet experts asked us which newscaster has the most beautiful voice,” he says. “As the officials here, we knew who the best newscaster was . . . It was her, of course.”
The Soviet advisers designing the show had a two-fold mission: to convey the details of a leniency policy towards defectors, and to trigger the emotions of those hiding out with resistance forces so that they would give in to their homesickness.
The PRK had laid out a “six-point policy” for defectors, in which it assured that they would be welcomed back into society and would not be harmed after undergoing “re-education”. They were facing a pervasive propaganda campaign on the other side, however. The existing Khmer Rouge forces warned families that they would be killed or imprisoned by the Vietnamese if they went over to the PRK.
Facing this challenge, the Motherland Appeal team aimed for the heart. They did so first with music they felt would stir the emotions of Cambodians.
A well-known song called Sronos Srok, which means “missing the homeland”, opened the show. Played with the Pei Pok, a type of traditional flute, as well as horns, the song conjured up romantic images of a Cambodian way of life.
Ly Sok-Kheang, the director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center and the author of Reconciliation Process in Cambodia: 1979-2007, described the power behind the music.
“I feel that Cambodian people used their traditional ways of communicating with each other [in the propaganda],” he says. “They used the horns, they used the three-string guitar . . . The Khmer Rouge regime got rid of those kinds of traditional things like this, so I think it touched the heart of the people.”
Ka Sunbaunat, a psychiatrist and former dean and professor at the University of Health Sciences, remembers the show well and calls it a form of “psychological warfare”, particularly the music.
“Sronos Srok was very psychologically influential,” he says. “It arouses the listeners’ emotion, especially homesickness. Meanwhile, it helped them to relax and calm their mind.”
The horns played in the song were traditionally used by the owners of elephants to call them home, a piece of symbolism not lost on Chea Sokha, who in the mid-1980s was living in a refugee camp controlled by Son Sann’s non-communist, anti-PRK Khmer People’s National Liberation Front.
Sokha fled Cambodia in 1984, fearing Vietnamese influence and the prospect of war escalating, but did not take up arms against the government. He remembers listening to the Motherland Appeal Programme and, unconvinced by the message, laughing with his friends.
“We are considered the elephants, and we were joking with our neighbours that now they are calling us jungle elephants to go back to the country,” he said.
Although the show was ineffective for Sokha, who said he was afraid of being arrested by the Vietnamese if he returned, it did achieve some of its goals, especially through Kandavy.
“I heard the voice [appealing for peace] on the radio,” said former Khmer Rouge solder Roat Sakun, as recounted in Sok-Kheang’s book. “It made me miss my parents so much. But I didn’t know what to do as I was under their control and felt uncertain and afraid about returning.”
Others told Sok-Kheang that the sound of the horns blowing made them want to put down their weapons.
Central to the Motherland programme was the concept of leniency. According to Vannarith, who was second-in-command of the show, there were two types of interviews – one with a defector recorded where he or she had been resettled, and another in the studio with former soldiers.
“Their emotions during the interviews were a mixture of regret and fear,” he said. “The leniency policy was so important because no one would have come back to us if we would not have forgiven them.”
Vannarith and Kandavy insist that the promises of forgiveness presented on the show were kept, and the research of Sok-Kheang, who has studied the PRK period and reconciliation process extensively, has largely found that to be true.
In most cases, defectors went through a “re-integration centre”, after which they were released but put under observation. But in certain instances, the scrutiny and distrust were too much to bear. “Some people defected to the government and felt so uneasy because they are under watch, so sometimes they went back to the jungle,” Sok-Kheang said.
A message of humanity
As the years passed, Kandavy began to develop a reputation, both among fans and enemies. One day, a brother who worked in the military came to her house and told her the resistance forces had “put a price on her head” as the voice of the PRK.
“I was not afraid. I believed that as long as my intentions were good, no one could kill me . . . Meanwhile, many people believed me and came back to society,” she said. Some of these people would take pilgrimages to the station, including one former Khmer Rouge soldier who was convinced to return by the programme.
Despite the objections from her boss, who feared for her safety, she insisted on seeing him. “He was so surprised to see me, [and] I told him not to be afraid of us. He said that he wanted to defect a long time ago but he was too scared.”
Others, Kandavy says, would come to the station just to put a face to her voice.
Sunbaunat, the psychiatrist, recalls Kandavy’s instant appeal and siren-like voice. “Ros Kandavy was the perfect presenter for the programme. Her voice was very beautiful and emotional . . . The stories addressed the hardship and risk of living and fighting in the forests. The message was that if they came back, they could get rid of those problems.”
According to Vannarith there are no statistics available on the number of official defections – the radio station archives were all lost when the headquarters moved to another building – although he is convinced from the personal testimonies of defectors that the programme made an impact. Over time the tone shifted, eventually focusing on the results of integration and on what former soldiers were achieving in their everyday lives.
After running twice per day since either 1980 or 1981 – neither Kandavy nor Vannarith recall the exact date – its final broadcast was in 1987. Vannarith speculates the show may have been cut because of the perestroika reforms and economic strains in the Soviet Union, but he is not sure.
“At that time, the resistance forces were in their weakest form,” he said.
Though the PRK era remains a contentious subject of debate among Cambodians, Sok-Kheang believes that the combination of its lenient policy towards defectors and its more controversial defence programmes prevented a potential collapse.
One of these controversial programmes, the K5 Plan, led to widespread disease and deaths as the PRK attempted to physically isolate resistance areas by clearing forests, digging trenches and laying landmines.
“There are some tricks to win over the other side, and sometimes these are dangerous, but at a certain point it helped society,” Sok-Kheang said. “They used the hard approach, like K5, and the soft approach, like the propaganda programmes. At least they made some effort rather than the military approach alone.”
For Kandavy and Vannarith, perhaps the most rewarding part of their work in the 1980s was not a part of the propaganda mission. They would field requests from people who would come to the station hoping to send messages to their loved ones. Vannarith would write up an announcement, which Kandavy would then read.
In some cases, they would try to reunite belongings with people living out in the countryside; in others, people would be looking for missing relatives. The radio station became one of the hubs for putting back together jumbled and fractured lives after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea.
Often, people would travel from the provinces to convey their message, and Kandavy and Vannarith would give them food and a place to stay at their house. “We ended up becoming close friends, like brothers and sisters,” she said.
In one case in 1984 that stood out to Vannarith, a Cambodian man living in France came to the station looking for his mother. They made an announcement, and a few days later somebody contacted them saying they knew where the woman was.
“We arranged a meeting at Sor Hotel [now Pailin Hotel] and realised that she had been a beggar while he was living in France,” he said. “They were crying and hugging. And I was crying too.”