What's so funny in Cambodia?


PHNOM PENH — Television is ubiquitous in Cambodia. Grainy screens flicker inside even the smallest street-side restaurants. On them, saccharine music videos or slapstick comedies mesmerize diners and servers alike. And recently, two popular comedies suddenly became overtly political when they began ridiculing non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The shows aired on Bayon TV and CTN — both owned by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party — and depicted NGO employees as gold-chain-wearing, Mercedes-Benz-driving swindlers. In one episode, a foreign NGO donor visits Cambodia and shuns his responsibilities in favor of lounging in fancy villas and visiting prostitutes. In another sketch, NGOs pay poor villagers to put their thumbprints on a petition condemning government corruption.

The comedies were a tit-for-tat reaction to the Clean Hands Concert held May 30 at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. The event celebrated the collection of 1 million thumbprints of Cambodians who support the passage of an anti-corruption law. More than 50,000 people attended, making it the largest anti-corruption rally in the world, according to sponsors USAID and Pact Cambodia. During the opening speech, U.S. Ambassador Carol Rodley said Cambodia loses $500 million to corruption annually. The Cambodian government condemned her remark, calling it "politically motivated and unsubstantiated.”

The concert also featured a medley of pop singers and comedians. In one sketch, the same actors who later performed in CTN’s parodies depicted a commune chief selling a government job to the highest bidder.

Khieu Sansana, who MC’d the concert and hosts two entertainment shows on CTN, said she was shocked when her colleagues turned around and criticized NGOs the following week. “I thought everything was fine. Then, later on, there was a team that came along and did this critical thing,” Khieu Sansana said. While she volunteered for the concert, she said her comedian colleagues were paid for their participation. “When I saw their show, I almost cried.”

The comedians who appeared in both the concert and the TV satires declined to be interviewed for this article, and it remains unclear whether or not they were instructed to perform the comedy sketches. The leader of the CTN troupe, Chuong Chy, told local media that he wrote the script.

One comedian from Bayon TV, who did not participate in the concert, said he performed in his station’s sketches because he was offended by the concert’s message.

“The government is the parent — we don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” comedian Thou Chamrong told GlobalPost. “If someone curses your mother, you will be angry.”

The concert’s violation of Cambodian decorum prompted the backlash, agreed Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum of Cambodia. Cambodian etiquette shuns confrontation and causing embarrassment is considered bad form.

“You cannot use the same approach you use in the U.S. There’s a different context and different cultures,” Chhith Sam Ath explained. “Here, talking and dialogue is more effective than public displays.”

According to Yong Kim Eng, the director of an NGO that helped conduct the thumbprint campaign, the government's ire is specifically focused on ambassador Rodley. He believes the TV satires reflect the personal opinions of the performers and said that government officials support the Clean Hands Campaign, which started in 2005 and includes an array of initiatives in addition to the petition and the concert.

“I support the organization, not the concert,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Minister. “This government is not under anyone’s pressure … We will reform quietly, slowly.”

A draft of an anti-corruption law was first circulated in 1994. In 2004, the government promised to pass it by the end of 2005. Currently, council ministers are reviewing the bill, Phay Siphan said. Few NGOs understand the challenges of such sweeping legislation in Cambodia’s “culture of corruption,” he added. According to a 2008 Transparency International Index, Cambodia is the 14th most corrupt country in the world, out of 180. It is one of eight countries most affected by petty bribes, according to the same organization.

To implement an anti-corruption law, the government must first amend its criminal code to include an entirely new legal system related to corruption, Phay Siphan said. The National Assembly is currently reviewing the amended code. Once it is passed, the anti-corruption bill can begin to move, although Phay Siphan wouldn't say when.

Phay Siphan argued that NGO pressure only slows progress and that their presence in Cambodia is generally harmful. There are more than 2,000 NGOs in Cambodia and the government does not regulate them — donors are responsible for oversight. For the past several years, Prime Minister Hun Sen, prone to bluster, has threatened to create a law regulating NGOs. Phay says no such bill yet exists, but if one is written, it would be limited to combating terrorist cells masked as NGOs. The NGO community, however, is wary that such a law would target government watchdogs.

“The recent experiences of many other countries which — like Cambodia — lack independent judiciaries and other institutions, have shown that NGO laws are regularly used to stifle criticism of the government by civil society,” said a June 2009 paper by Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

NGOs first flourished in Cambodia when the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) took control of the country from 1992 to 1994 to implement a peace agreement, ending more than a decade of post-Khmer Rouge civil war. UNTAC cost $1.5 billion, making it the most expensive peacekeeping mission in United Nations history. Aid organizations received funding to support the mission and the flow of foreign money combined with a lack of oversight created the “NGO heaven” that exists in Cambodia today, said Pierre Yves Clais, a hotel owner and expatriate who came to Cambodia in the mid-1980s as a peacekeeper with the French military.

“[NGOs] can stop bad things from happening once in a while … but as far as real development, it is zero,” said Clais, who believes NGOs are inefficient and have outlived their usefulness. The government, and its media holdings, encourages this sentiment.

“Viewers just watch it and laugh,” comedian Thou Chamrong said of the parodies. “But politicians and those who know about politics watch it and sing.”

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