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In Cambodia, Politics Push Musicians Into Self-Censorship

Cambodian rapper Chhun Dymey, also known as Dymey-Cambo, is seen on a photo from his Facebook page @DymeyCAMBOOfficial.
Cambodian rapper Chhun Dymey, also known as Dymey-Cambo, is seen on a photo from his Facebook page @DymeyCAMBOOfficial.

Rapper Chhun Dymey seems to have struck a chord in Cambodia. He was somewhat of an unknown until his song, "This Society," went viral last month, shared on social media platforms that included opposition leader Sam Rainsy's YouTube channel.

Since then, police have visited Chhun Dymey's parents' home and his workplace and the 24-year-old artist, also known as Dymey-Cambo, has deleted it from his social media accounts. (At the time of this story’s publication it remained viewable online on Cambodian activist and politician Sam Rainsy's account.)

The song touches on a range of social and political issues and is seen as critical of the government.

“I will stop composing such songs and turn to write sentimental songs that encourage the younger generation to love and unite in solidarity with one another,” Dymey told The Phnom Penh Post.

In an email, Sam Rainsy described the developments as "very worrying."

“Even artists and musicians are now afraid in this repressive society,” he said. “We must not accept that even artists are held hostage by the Hun Sen regime.” Sam Rainsy was referring to the prime minister.

Musician Vartey Ganiva understands Chhun Dymey’s decision to delete his song and turn to less critical music. In her songs, she has addressed issues that include women’s rights and the environment, but is careful to not take it too far.

In an interview with VOA, Vartey Ganiva said she was worried police would also show up at her home if she wasn’t cautious with her choice of words.

“I write in a good way,” she said, explaining her strategy to avoid encounters with authorities. “I don’t go to the main problem, like, I don't write about government stuff. [I] just [write] about the problem that happened. But I'm not going directly to the government. [I] just make people understand why the environment has problems right now. Because of what? Because of cutting trees, or [that] they have used so much plastic.”

Cambodian singer Vartey Ganiva is seen on a photo from her Facebook page @VarteyGaniva.
Cambodian singer Vartey Ganiva is seen on a photo from her Facebook page @VarteyGaniva.

Asked whether she thought of herself as conducting self-censorship, she replied in the affirmative.

“I mean you can understand I cannot go to the government, because I also protect myself too. I want to stay longer with this kind of music … so if I write something about the government then [this] can cause problems,” she said.

Vartey Ganiva said she had to be mindful as she felt that the Camdodian legal system did not adequately protect artists.

Naly Pilorge, director of human rights organization Licadho, took it a step further, and said that laws were often used against those who criticized the government.

“Dymey’s case illustrates a worrying trend where the government’s attempts to intimidate and criminally charge Cambodians for expressing dissent has increased significantly. This is especially true of online expression,” she said in a message to VOA. “While art is a strong platform to express oneself and should be protected as free speech, we can also see that authoritarian regimes are threatened by them and are quick to ban anything critical of the establishment.”

Culture and Fine Arts Minister Phoerung Sackona did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite feeling that she had to be careful about the way she addressed social issues in her lyrics, Vartey Ganiva said she derived satisfaction about her work by having clear and meaningful messages. “[It makes me] a little bit sad, but…I am still writing some stuff that's good,” she said.

“I really want [new artists] to focus on real music, not copy stuff... They could be writing more songs that can give more messages than love songs,” she said.