Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Music – a propaganda promoting the Khmer Rouge socialist identity



Music – a propaganda promoting the Khmer Rouge socialist identity

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
To eliminate citizen’s old identities, the Khmer Rouge suppressed contemporary music, including pop music from the West. jm turner

Music – a propaganda promoting the Khmer Rouge socialist identity

Shortly after their rise to power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge sought to change the social identity of the Khmer people.

Through forced relocation, expropriation of possessions and separation of family members, the regime sought to eliminate old identities as much as possible.

But one curious and often overlooked aspect of their re-education programmes is the use of music, as propaganda songs were employed to promote the Khmer Rouge’s new, socialist identity.

The strategy of using music to build identity has a strong basis in social science. Social groups form their identity largely through shared experience, and music provides a particularly powerful tool for creating such an experience.

Accordingly, music plays an important role in politics around the world, and has been used by governments and citizens alike for both noble and sinister motives. The collection of Khmer Rouge songs still held in the archives of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) provides a particularly valuable resource for understanding this phenomenon.

Studying the Khmer Rouge’s songs exposes the contradictory nature of socialist music.

In order to eliminate its citizen’s old identities, the Khmer Rouge was obliged to suppress contemporary music, which included popular music from the West.

This left them with primarily old, traditional Khmer music with which to promote the new, modern identity. Like the traditional music they imitate, Khmer Rouge songs were transmitted orally and survive today in the DC-Cam archives primarily in the form of recorded live performances.

Most traditional musicians were put to death by the Khmer Rouge, and those remaining were forced to learn and perform the new regime songs. The accompanying instrumental ensembles frequently resemble those associated with basak and mohori, Cambodia’s traditional folk theatre styles.

The general performance style suggests that the traditionally trained musicians simply applied their knowledge to the new repertoire.

Even a brief perusal of the songs reveals clearly contrasting styles. Many songs feature gracefully balanced melodies, but others contain shorter phrases with more melodic variation and a marching-like character.

Still others feature simpler melodies with more extravagant ornamentation. As with the instrumental ensembles, these styles likely borrow from traditional or outside sources in order to complement the lyrics.

The Khmer Rouge’s songs, in particular, are remarkable in that they were largely effective. Even Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who despised the songs, admitted in his book Surviving the Killing Fields that for brief moments, listening to the songs, he believed the new regime had succeeded.

Their persistence is another indicator of their success. For better or worse, several survivors speak of the songs positively in spite of the misery of the life they accompanied.

If studied further, a more complete understanding of the songs could yield valuable insights into the type of “revolutionary culture” the Khmer Rouge sought to instil, as well as further illuminate the role music plays in the formation of social identity.

Still today, the use of music for creating social identity in political campaigns is a common tool. Visceral, engaging and compelling, music has the capacity to connect with people like no other medium, for both good and evil.
The Khmer Rouge’s exploitation of music is among history’s most poignant examples of the latter.

JW Turner

MOST VIEWED

  • NY sisters inspired by Khmer heritage

    Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Cambodian-American sisters Edo and Eyen Chorm have always felt a deep affinity for their Cambodian heritage and roots. When the pair launched their own EdoEyen namesake jewellery brand in June, 2020, they leaned heavily into designs inspired by ancient Khmer

  • Omicron patients can stay home: PM

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has given the green light for anyone who contracts the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron mutation or any other variant to convalesce or receive treatment at home or in any other reasonable non-healthcare setting. The new decision supersedes a restriction on home care for

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • Cambodia’s first ever anime festival kicks off Jan 22 at capital’s F3 centre

    Phnom Penh's first ever Anime Festival will bring together fans, artists, shops and other local businesses with ties to the Japanese animation style for cosplay competitions, online games, pop-up shops and more on January 22, with Friends Futures Factory (F3) hosting. F3 is a project that

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa

  • Demining rat ‘hero’ Magawa dead at 8

    A landmine-hunting rat that was awarded a gold medal for heroism for clearing ordnance from the Cambodian countryside has died, his charity said on January 11. Magawa, a giant African pouched rat originally from Tanzania, helped clear mines from about 225,000sqm of land – the equivalent of 42