Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun was once jailed for his harsh lyrics, but that didn’t stop him from moving forward with his latest release, Workers’ blood, set in the context of striking garment workers being beaten by the military police. At least four workers died during the protests.
“They fought for their rights, for freedom, in the fraught search for justice,” Sokun raps in Khmer. “I want to remember the heroism of the workers who gave their lives.”
Within days of the song’s release on January 3 — the ninth anniversary of the government’s harsh response to a large-scale strike by garment workers — the Culture Ministry warned the music video as “inciting content that can cause insecurity and social order”.
The leaders of the human rights organizations that commissioned the song were soon brought in for questioning. Police threatened legal action unless the video was removed from the websites and Facebook pages of the Cambodian Federation for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and the Center for Coalition of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), representing of human rights groups said .
“Every year we post [about the anniversary of the protests] and we have no problem, so why now when we just use old pictures with a song about a real event, why does it provoke? Am Sam Ath, chief executive officer of LICADHO, told Al Jazeera. “We consider the video removal order a violation of LICADHO’s right to expression.”
National police spokesman Chhay Kimkoeurn claimed there was no threat involved and said police were only looking to “educate” human rights groups.
“We don’t threaten them with legal action, but if they don’t follow the law, we will enforce the law,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to “inciting” a crime, a dream allegation. It is usually applied to people who are considered criminals. criticized the government.
The censorship of Workers’ Blood is part of an ongoing crackdown on free speech in Cambodia that is picking up speed ahead of national elections in July. Nearly his fourth decade in power, Prime Minister Hun Sen outlaw the main opposition party before the last election five years ago and is now preparing to hand control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to his son Hun Manet.
Civil society organizations, opposition politicians as well as rappers are being strongly reminded of the limits of what can and cannot be said in an increasingly restrictive society.
Khun Tharo, CENTRAL’s program director, told Al Jazeera: “I think the government is trying to legitimize itself and this is a transition period, so they are seeing civil society as a threat. threaten. “The government feels this song has really discredited [them].”
A song to seek justice
While Cambodia’s music industry has exploded in recent years, few rappers other than Sokun dare to include direct social commentary in their songs. Other rappers who spoke out against the government’s actions faced death threats or were forced to issue a public apology.
“I’ve always wanted to use songs as a mirror of reality in society,” said Sokun VOD, an online media in Cambodia, last year. “I just want to tell the truth.”
Raised in a poor family on the road from World Heritage site Angkor Wat and dropped out of school as a teenager, Sokun was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison in 2020 for a series of nationalist songs. covered topics like Cambodia. borders, and filled with uncompromising takedowns of the rich and powerful.
A judge offered to release Sokun if he apologized for his lyrics, but the rapper refused and served time, making him famous throughout Cambodia.
The 24-year-old now has more than a quarter of a million subscribers on his personal page. YouTube channel and continued to target political issues and injustice, producing a song describing his incarceration and another about fill the lakes of Phnom Penh to grow.
Sabina Lawreniuk, a University of Nottingham researcher who studies Cambodia’s garment industry, said it was Worker’s Blood that caused tension with the government because it was a reminder of the scale of the public protests. garment industry started at the end of 2013.
Tens of thousands of workers flocked to Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh to demand a pay increase and eventually the government was forced to double the minimum wage to $160 a month. Since then, it has raised wages every year, even as powerful new union laws have been introduced that rights groups say are aimed at stifling independent unions.
Lawreniuk told Al Jazeera: “Labor politics in Cambodia is clearly bound up with electoral politics in a way that some other human rights issues and struggles in Cambodia are not. “That huge mobilization of people really worries the government.”
The protests followed a highly contested election in 2013 when the Cambodia National Rescue Party spooked the CPP by winning a large majority of the vote on a platform calling for higher wages for workers and garment industry officials.
The protests in Veng Sreng only ended after police and military forces opened fire on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing at least four people on January 3, 2014. One person protester, Khem Sophat, 15, remains missing to this day.
“I have no hope that he will be found, his friend said he was shot and lying on the road,” Sophat’s father, Khem Soeun, told Al Jazeera. “My child is very gentle, he always helps the family.”
Sophat lied about his age to get a job at a garment factory and send money to his parents monthly, his father said. The last time he saw his son was nine months before the protests when he visited during the Khmer New Year.
“After he went back to work, he never came back,” Soeun said. “His mother, when she heard the song [Workers Blood]she cried all day, it reminded her of Veng Sreng street”.
According to a fact-finding report released shortly after a protest by labor rights group Asia Monitoring Resource Center, the deaths were the result of “indiscriminate shooting and use of weapons by the military police”. excessive force”. No one is responsible for the worker’s death.
“Waiting for justice for 9 years, a long time passed and no one was held accountable, yearning for a solution,” Sokun raps. “Eyes see the truth, unforgettable, stay in the minds of those who are alive.”
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democratic Official Economic Association (IDEA), was brutally beaten by government security forces at the protest. A prominent labor activist with ties to Veng Sreng, Pov was questioned by police about Sokun’s song and then forced to remove it from his organization’s Facebook page, although IDEA did not Sponsor the song.
Pov told Al Jazeera: “When I heard Sokun’s song, I was really shocked, like it was still fresh and so unfair to the victims. “I feel like I can’t rely on this society to find the truth when injustice happens.”
Avoid ‘red lines’
Culture Ministry spokeswoman Long Bunna Siriwadh would not elaborate on what worker Blood caused the incitement allegation.
“I’m not analyzing the meaning, I’m just talking about the principle of law and social order,” Siriwadh told Al Jazeera, insisting Sokun can continue composing songs. “He can keep doing whatever he wants. But don’t mess with society, respect the law – it’s as easy as that.”
Hun Sen set a clear red line in a recent speech, warning the opposition party and other potential detractors that criticism of the ruling CPP will be met with action. legal or violent. The CPP sued one of the vice presidents of the opposition Candlelight Party for $1 million for defamation after he claimed to have problems with the election process, and this week police arrested a leader. another of Candlelight for allegedly issuing bad checks.
In the run-up to elections in Cambodia, freedom of expression is often restricted, and while restrictions may be eased afterwards, the situation will never return to the way it was beforeAccording to researcher Lawreniuk of the University of Nottingham.
“While it feels like authoritarian control tightens around election time, and then it is released, the government’s power is actually consolidated over time,” says Lawreniuk. “That’s what has allowed this to slide into de facto one-party rule.”
Sokun, who has remained largely silent since the crackdown, declined to comment for Al Jazeera, saying he is currently facing “a lot of problems in his life”. But he denied the song broke the law.
“There’s no problem with the song, there’s no hysteria,” he told Voice of America shortly after the video was censored. “We wanted the authorities to find justice for the victim, but instead they took action against the poster. [the song]I feel regret about this.”
The original posts may have been deleted, but Sokun’s song continues to be widely shared on social media on other sites and platforms. CENTRAL’s Tharo said that if the government’s aim was to prevent viewers from watching music videos, it didn’t work.
“It’s gone viral now,” he said. “I think our goal was achieved, because the whole idea was to create a sentiment of public remembrance. [about Veng Sreng].”