A prominent singer is speaking out to defend young musicians as a second rapper was arrested this month for incitement after posting songs about the problems he sees plaguing Cambodia.
The arrest of the 17-year-old rapper, who shared his songs on YouTube, follows the arrest earlier this month of Kea Sokun, 22, for his song “Dey Khmer,” or Khmer Land.
The 17-year-old’s father told VOD that he had warned his underage son not to offer social critiques, and wanted to see him given the chance to apologize and come out of jail.
The son was about to start Grade 12, and the family had high hopes that he would be able to graduate to work in “any sector,” the father said.
“We instructed our son not to touch political issues because we cannot talk about it, and when we talk about it they will consider us to be involved with politics,” he said. “We should not do it because if you are in the age of studying and you are detained, you will have no chance to continue to learn.”
The father said both he and his wife were illiterate, so had hoped that his son could have more opportunities in his life than they did.
The 17-year-old was friends with Sokun, and was arrested three days after the 22-year-old rapper was detained in Siem Reap, the father said.
The son was meant to meet a teacher for coffee in Phnom Penh, but police picked him up instead and took him to the Interior Ministry headquarters before taking him to Siem Reap as his case was linked to Sokun’s, the father said.
“We tried to call him but he wouldn’t pick up … and in the evening we still could not get through,” the father said of his distress.
One of the 17-year-old’s songs, “Oh Kampuchea,” was posted seven months ago and has over 20,000 views.
“The rich have options about what to eat, while the poor pick [from the ground] to eat. [The poor] have only one life but it is as worthless as dust,” he sings.
The song’s lyrics also note Cambodia’s “perfect territory,” echoing the nationalist sentiments of Sokun’s music that landed the older rapper in jail.
Another song, “People’s Tears,” is a collaboration with Sokun and has over 400,000 views.
Sos Mach, a prominent Cambodian singer and former president of the Khmer Artist Association, said he was filled with regret seeing the young rappers arrested.
“This thing should not be happening to the youths who are concerned, and love the nation and its territory,” Mach said. “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.”
Because the rappers were so young, they should be allowed to apologize, Mach said. Artists should show their support for the arrested musicians, he added.
When asked if he was concerned about speaking out, Mach said he was doing it for his country.
“My friends, family and some fans are concerned about me. But I’ve told them I have done nothing wrong, and I just speak the truth and don’t exaggerate … so what I have done is just for my country and society so I have no worries about it,” he said.
The latest arrest comes as at least 10 youth activists have been arrested since August, most of them for protesting in support of jailed unionist Rong Chhun. Chhun was arrested in late July for saying in a radio interview that Cambodia was ceding land to Vietnam along the border in Tbong Khmum province.
Mark Cogan, an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, said the border issue had long been a source of contention for Cambodian activists, and in past years was associated with “more virulent forms of nationalism.”
“It’s important to note that land has become a source of identity in Cambodia and remains sensitive, dating back to the days of the Khmer Rouge, who seized the titles to land deeds from Cambodians in the late 1970s,” Cogan said.
From the point of view of recent activists, it was an issue worth standing up for at the risk of arrest possibly because of the shrinking space for expression, he said.
“I think this has a lot to do with frustration with a decreasing space for civil society organizations to operate, combined with a severe distrust of Hun Sen, who has become more friendly with Vietnam in recent years,” Cogan said.
But the rappers — even if they invoke “a sense of Cambodian national identity” — don’t specifically incite violence, he said.
“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,” Cogan said.
Siem Reap Provincial Prison spokesperson Phoan Chhorvoan confirmed the 17-year-old’s arrest for incitement.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said the young man was arrested on September 7 by Interior Ministry officers in Phnom Penh and detained at the Siem Reap Provincial Prison on September 9.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said officers had followed court orders, and he was not concerned about criticism from civil society. “When we arrest and imprison, you say we violate [rights]. Civil society is not the state authority.”
Siem Reap Provincial Court spokesperson Yin Srang declined to comment.
Last year, another young hip-hop artist known by his moniker Dymey-Cambo was pressured by authorities to delete a viral song titled “This Society” which referenced social injustices and pointed the finger at the government. Police had visited his parents’ home and his workplace, according to South China Morning Post.
Additional reporting by Michael Dickison