Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun’s latest single, “Workers’ Blood,” commemorates the nine-year anniversary of a garment worker strike and the violent government crackdown that followed.
Last month, the government issued a warning to Kea Sokun over the song and music video, drawing ire specifically from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture.
The ministry accused Kea Sokun’s video of “inciting content that may cause insecurity and social disorder,” which is against several incitement laws in the country, including Article 495, which could lead to jail time of up to two years.
In the song, Kea Sokun raps: “In 2014, there was suffering on Veng Sreng Street, anger broke out at a protest for a living wage ... Workers struggle to have rights, freedom, but the search for justice is filled with obstacles.”
Four people died in clashes with the police that day; more than 10 people were injured.
Human rights groups that commissioned the song — the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights and the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights — were brought in for questioning.
Kea Sokun was then put on notice with a demand to take down the video.
Ultimately, the human rights groups that commissioned the video removed it from the internet, but the audio of the song is still available online on some sites.
“I didn’t think it was a crime or inciting,” Kea Sokun, 24, said in an interview with The World.
“The reason I compose those songs is to encourage Cambodians to love each other, to love their own country and not to become discouraged.”
This is not the first time Kea Sokun and his music have run up against the law.
The musician, who grew up in the northwest Cambodian town Siem Reap, has been rapping about social issues in his native land since he first got into music in 2015.
His first single, “A na Kot ler Som Ram” (“The Future of Trash” in English) is about the life of an orphan.
“Some people are kind and allow me to stay near them; sometimes, I am given a meal to survive the day,” he raps in the 2015 song. “Some people weren’t kind, they discriminated against me because of the way I look; they think of orphans as animals.”
Kea Sokun said he primarily sings about issues of injustice in Cambodian society — drug addiction, bad traffic, land issues and culture. Over the years, he’s released songs with titles such as “Hidden Assassin,” “Sad Nation,” and “Solidarity.”
Then in 2020, his song,” Khmer Land, Poor Nation and People’s Tears,” caught the attention of Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture for its lyrics about corruption and opposing a dictator.
“Actually, there’s cheating in every form; those who are well-educated will be killed; those who are smart will have their mouth shut,” he raps.
Kea Sokun was arrested and convicted of incitement for his lyrics. He served a year of the 1 1/2 years he was given.
But when he got out in September of 2021, he kept writing.
Now, he’s one of the most popular rappers in Cambodia, with about a quarter of a million subscribers on YouTube and a hefty following across social media, where he releases and promotes his songs.
The Cambodian government has a history of going after artists when they think their work is too political, said Virak Ou, founder of the policy think tank Future Forum in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades. The former Khmer Rouge commander has made it a hallmark of his rule to silence political opponents and dissidents, as well as journalists and media he views as critical of his government.
In early February, the government shut down Voice of Democracy, Cambodia’s last independent media outlet, because Hun Sen accused their coverage of smearing his son.
But it’s been a while since the government has cracked down on a high-profile artist, Ou said. “So it’s not new, but it has been quiet for a while now. It's come back and so is the crackdown on that, too.”
Kea Sokun uses hip-hop and rap to reach a wider audience, he said — particularly, in a country where over 65% of its population of nearly 17 million is under the age of 30, according to the United Nations.
Do not count out Cambodia’s youth, Ou said.
“At this stage, they’re not as visibly active as we think they should be, but I think overall, I think they are still active,” he said. “They want to feel proud of their country, of who they are.”
The timing of Kea Sokun’s arrest is not coincidental, Phil Robertson, said deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch — as Cambodia is holding general elections this summer, with Hun Sen poised to win yet another term.
“We're not expecting that election to be free or fair because of the government’s systematic harassment of opposition political parties and the repression of independent media,” Robertson said.
And Kea Sokun’s song about the garment workers struck the wrong note.
“The government recognizes that garment workers are massive voters they need to win over, and so, they're particularly sensitive to any sort of criticism about their labor policies,” Robertson said.
Still, while Kea Sokun might lie low for a bit, he said he’s not going to stop writing music about Cambodia’s social issues.
“It is my profession and my passion that I cannot give up,” he said.
Horm Sreynich contributed to this article from Cambodia.
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