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Comedians attack NGO workers as gold chain-wearing, Mercedes-Benz-driving swindlers. Funny, maybe. But is it true?
PHNOM PENH — Television is ubiquitous in Cambodia. Grainy screens flicker inside even the smallest street-side restaurants. On them, saccharine music videos or slapstick comedies mesmerize diners and servers alike. And recently, two popular comedies suddenly became overtly political when they began ridiculing non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The shows aired on Bayon TV and CTN — both owned by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party — and depicted NGO employees as gold-chain-wearing, Mercedes-Benz-driving swindlers. In one episode, a foreign NGO donor visits Cambodia and shuns his responsibilities in favor of lounging in fancy villas and visiting prostitutes. In another sketch, NGOs pay poor villagers to put their thumbprints on a petition condemning government corruption.
The comedies were a tit-for-tat reaction to the Clean Hands Concert held May 30 at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. The event celebrated the collection of 1 million thumbprints of Cambodians who support the passage of an anti-corruption law. More than 50,000 people attended, making it the largest anti-corruption rally in the world, according to sponsors USAID and Pact Cambodia. During the opening speech, U.S. Ambassador Carol Rodley said Cambodia loses $500 million to corruption annually. The Cambodian government condemned her remark, calling it "politically motivated and unsubstantiated.”
The concert also featured a medley of pop singers and comedians. In one sketch, the same actors who later performed in CTN’s parodies depicted a commune chief selling a government job to the highest bidder.
Khieu Sansana, who MC’d the concert and hosts two entertainment shows on CTN, said she was shocked when her colleagues turned around and criticized NGOs the following week. “I thought everything was fine. Then, later on, there was a team that came along and did this critical thing,” Khieu Sansana said. While she volunteered for the concert, she said her comedian colleagues were paid for their participation. “When I saw their show, I almost cried.”
The comedians who appeared in both the concert and the TV satires declined to be interviewed for this article, and it remains unclear whether or not they were instructed to perform the comedy sketches. The leader of the CTN troupe, Chuong Chy, told local media that he wrote the script.
One comedian from Bayon TV, who did not participate in the concert, said he performed in his station’s sketches because he was offended by the concert’s message.
“The government is the parent — we don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” comedian Thou Chamrong told GlobalPost. “If someone curses your mother, you will be angry.”
The concert’s violation of Cambodian decorum prompted the backlash, agreed Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum of Cambodia. Cambodian etiquette shuns confrontation and causing embarrassment is considered bad form.
“You cannot use the same approach you use in the U.S. There’s a different context and different cultures,” Chhith Sam Ath explained. “Here, talking and dialogue is more effective than public displays.”