Two Cambodian rappers face charges of inciting social unrest as the government continues its crackdown on dissent. Their cases, like many others in Cambodia, show the reach of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarianism but also point to the growing role of hip-hop in social movements in Southeast Asia.
Between deadly flooding from a tropical storm and the demolition of a US-built naval base, one recent story in Cambodia’s crackdown on dissent has disappeared from headlines.
In September, Cambodian rappers Kea Sokun and Long Puthera were arrested after they released songs that voiced criticism of the government.
The two are reportedly charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Penal Code Article 495 and were arrested along with other activists and at least one Buddhist monk.
The arrests come amid a renewed crackdown on political activity that began following the detention of labor movement leader Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, in late July. The union leader was detained for alleged “incitement” over his support for villagers near the border with Vietnam in defending their land rights.
The rappers’ lyrics reference issues of economic injustice and criticize the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which swept all 125 seats in Parliament in July 2018 after the Supreme Court banned the leading opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Kea Sokun was arrested first, largely over authorities’ objections to his song “Dey Khmer,” or “Khmer Land.” Long Puthera was arrested soon after. Recording under the stage name Thxera-Kampuchea, he writes lyrics that highlight Cambodia’s problem of widening income inequality. He released at least one song with Kea Sokun earlier this year.
Kea Sokun and Long Puthera have reportedly been denied access to public defenders and are relying on Cambodia’s civil society groups for support.
“This thing should not be happening to the youths who are concerned and love the nation and its territory,” Cambodian singer Sos Mach told VOD. “The compositions are to awaken the spirit and shed light on a negative spot or error or mistake, so it is constructive criticism. They should not arrest and detain him.” Sos Mach is the former president of the Khmer Artist Association.
“They had simply expressed their views through music, which was not a case of incitement. Their arrest is a violation of their basic rights,” Am Sam Ath, deputy director of civil rights group Licadho, told Radio Free Asia. Licadho and another civil society group, Legal Aid of Cambodia, have stepped in to represent the pair.
“Citizens can post whatever they want, including music,” Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin told the Khmer Times in early October. “But they must make sure that it’s not violating others’ rights or creating an impact on public order or intentionally having a negative meaning that creates controversy in society.”
Cambodian government continues repression after EU cuts trade privileges
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has found that, since June 2019, the government has imprisoned or detained more than 150 supporters of the CNRP and a growing number of activists in connection with statements they made in opposition to the prime minister.
“Today, the human rights situation in Cambodia is getting worse — they are killing democracy, there are no free elections, there is no freedom of expression and no freedom of assembly,” Luon Sovath, a Cambodian Buddhist monk living in exile, told the UN Human Rights Council.
Justice Minister Koeut Rith has condemned public gatherings as a mode of expressing dissent. “Gathering in the streets to protest the release of an individual is putting pressure on the courts and law enforcement, which is not the legal way and deviates from the principle of the rule of law,” he told the Associated Press.
“Hun Sen is cracking down on dissent because he fears a civil society revolt in Cambodia. While there may not be an opposition party to oppose him, his government remains unpopular with Cambodians,” Mark Cogan, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University, told VOD.
On August 12, the EU revoked Cambodia’s duty-free trade privileges under the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement “due to serious and systematic concerns related to human rights.” The move represents a major hit to the country’s economy as garment workers and others struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.
Two months later, on October 12, Cambodia signed a free trade agreement with China. Though Cambodia may sorely need the agreement, China will likely reap the majority of the benefits, according to VOA Cambodia. Cambodia’s trade deficit with China exceeded US$6 billion in 2018 and Beijing holds 46% of Cambodia’s public debt.
Rap sees growing recognition for its role in social movements across Southeast Asia
Cambodia isn’t the only place in Southeast Asia where rappers have been targeted by authorities for their roles in popular movements. In Thailand, rap collective “Rap Against Dictatorship” released the song “Pratet Ku Mee,” or “What My Country’s Got,” in late 2018. The song has since become an anthem of the youth-led pro-democracy protests in the country, with over 91 million views on YouTube as of mid-October—Thailand’s population is just under 70 million.
In August, one of the group’s founders, Dechathorn “Hockhacker” Bamrungmuang, was arrested in Bangkok over alleged sedition and other charges, along with fellow public figures in the protest movement.
“It goes to show how strongly rap music, which is a form of art, moves people; so strong that the authorities feel threatened by it,” Putri Soeharto, an Indonesian rapper known as Ramengvrl, told Nikkei Asian Review.
Rap Against Dictatorship had already drawn the attention of the government. Police initially threatened to prosecute anyone who shared their music online before later backing down. “Anyone who shows appreciation for the song must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in the future,” said Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in late 2018.
As noted in Nikkei Asian Review, rappers in the Philippines have also pushed back against the government, responding to President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. A collective of artists and researchers called Sandata is working to tell stories of those impacted by the drug war and released an album, Kolateral, in 2019. The group has gained international attention, speaking and performing at Harvard and other universities across the US.
As Hun Sen’s Cambodia and other governments across the region clamp down on dissent and public demonstrations, citizens will continue to look to new avenues for expression. In targeting rappers like Kea Sokun and Long Puthera, authoritarian governments may simply amplify their impact, drawing attention to the issues in their songs.