3rd May 2011
In an rigorous piece of reporting in The Cambodia Daily’s Weekender Magazine, Neou Vannarin and Julia Wallace provide a fascinating insight into just how the country is run, which may come as a surprise to many foreigners living or visiting Cambodia.
In the article, entitled “Funny Business” and published on the 30th April, they describe how a troupe of Cambodian ‘rustic’ comedians travel the country providing free entertainment for the masses in a style that is familiar to anyone who was spent time in the region.
The difference, however, is that this corps of entertainers are actually all members of the Prime Minister’s bodyguard unit, and the skits they perform are all heavily laced with generous praise of the regime’s accomplishments.
The style of the performances is very similar to Thai-style comedy TV acts such as the Mum Show (TV5), Tong Bai Krai Kriat (TV3), Chuern Yim Show (TV3), Chuan Chym Cafe (ITV), that demonstrate the virtuosity of the troupe through a succession of skits involving quick-witted tomfoolery, lowbrow horseplay, physical jokes, deliberate gender confusion, and racy pranks.
However, the Cambodia-style is more restrained and usually revolve around “goofy domestic scenarios routinely breaking into extravagant praise for CPP officials and government policy,” Neuo and Wallace say.
These performances are also shown regularly on every TV channel here in Cambodia.
What is remarkable about these comedians, however, is that they are invariably paid members of the Prime Minister’s autonomous bodyguard unit’s ‘Propaganda and Education Commission’ with the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel.
Moreover, these performers often lard their shows with veiled attacks on key targets of the government’s ire, such as, on occasion, the multilateral aid organisations operating in the country, or on human rights campaigners.
In this, these Cambodian ‘comedy’ troupes appear to have more in common with soviet-era agitprop theatre (where propaganda was supposed to act on the mind while agitation acted on emotions) than mere entertainment. After the October Revolution of 1917, agitprop trains toured Russia with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda to convince the peasantry that the government was performing miracles on their behalf.
Neuro and Wallace also mention the case of a comedian who had served in a similar role for the opposition Funcinpec Party, but when the party feel from grace he found himself effectively blacklisted throughout the country until he wrote and published a public apology to the Prime Minister for the error of his ways. Subsequently he has been ‘rehabilitated’ and has now joined the bodyguard unit.