In one of Kea Sokun’s new songs, he raps of his year in jail “eating with thieves.”
“My hair is shaved, my life is locked, 365 days,” he says. “At night, put hands out through iron bars, thinking and full of disappointment.”
Sokun, 24, was jailed for incitement in 2020 for a previous composition, Khmer Land, a combative call for freedom tinged with racism.
At that time he called for authenticity (“we die one by one, fake in all ways”) while crossing the lines of sanctioned political rhetoric (“I’m opposed to the dictator”) as well as decency (“the other race is encroaching,” a nod to anti-Vietnamese hatred).
But now, two years later, in his new song 365 Days, Sokun adds: “I stand neutral.”
Sokun told reporters that he had no intention of shutting his mouth: The arrest had been an attempt to scare off artists from commenting on social issues, and he wanted to hold that space open. But he was also willing to listen to others’ advice, he said — including his family’s.
“Sometimes, they forbid it because they are worried about my safety, but they don’t block my freedom to talk about those issues as long as we speak in the right way,” Sokun said.
He has also been listening to civil society groups; for World Habitat Day, he partnered with local human rights NGO Licadho to release a song, Lake of Tears, criticizing development projects filling in lakes in Phnom Penh, causing flooding and residents’ evictions.
For more than a year now since his release from jail, Sokun has been trying to raise awareness — toeing the line between rebellious social commentary and avoiding offense.
Born in Siem Reap city’s Kokchak commune, Sokun is the youngest in a family of four children. He dropped out of school in grade 9 due to livelihood problems, and worked as a photographer.
His sister, Kea Channa, 28, said Sokun was a gentle boy who listens to his parents and doesn’t joke around too much.
The family felt hurt when Sokun was imprisoned, but she was proud to have a brother who was willing to speak out, she said.
“We are excited and proud of him for being brave and strong,” Channa said. “We think that if all of our young people keep fearing the threats like what my brother and us faced, then who will stand up for other youth?”
On Human Rights Day on December 10, Sokun received a civil society award as a human rights defender.
“Kea Sokun’s award is related to freedom of expression and rights violations,” said Cambodian Human Rights Defenders Alliance director Ros Sotha. “He sings about human rights violations in Cambodia. This freedom of expression is for the public benefit, not for his benefit.”
Licadho spokesman Am Sam Ath said Cambodian authorities should be encouraging people like Sokun instead of using prison to defend its actions.
Sokun said that since his arrest, he had been buoyed by the support he received.
“That became my strength later on,” he said. “My strongest supporters were my parents, brothers, especially civil society who … believed that that song was correct. And I thought that I had done nothing wrong. That is why I still continue in this field.”
Authorities had tried to shut the mouths and break the spirits of the young generation, but it was important to keep going, he said.
“There have been songs about what’s happening in society since the time of grandpa Sin Sisamuth,” he said. “So my arrest was to scare those around me.”
For some, Sokun’s lyrics continue to strike a chord.
Eng Sreypov, 24, said she always listens to Sokun’s songs as she felt they reflect the truths of society.
“After listening to them, I feel excited,” she said. “It’s really clear. His songs make us feel fascinated, happy, educated — reminding us and showing us the realities of society.”