Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun was once jailed for his harsh lyrics, but that didn’t stop him from continuing with his latest release, Workers Blood, which features scenes of striking garment workers being beaten by military police. At least four workers were killed in the protests.
“They fought for their rights, for freedom, the quest for justice full of obstacles,” Sokun raps in Khmer. “I want to remember the heroism of the workers who sacrificed their lives.”
Within days of the song’s release on January 3 — the ninth anniversary of the government’s deadly response to a mass strike by garment workers — the Ministry of Culture warned that the music video “incited to content that could cause insecurity and social disorder” .
The leaders of the human rights groups who commissioned the song were soon detained for questioning. Police threatened legal action unless the video was removed from the websites and Facebook pages of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), representatives of the rights groups .
“We post every year [about the anniversary of the protests] and we don’t have a problem so why now if we just use old images with a song about a real event then why is it incendiary?” Am Sam Ath, director of operations of LICADHO, told Al Jazeera. “We consider the order to remove the video a violation of LICADHO’s right of expression.”
National Police spokesman Chhay Kimkoeurn claimed no threats were involved and said the police were merely trying to “educate” the rights groups.
“We have not threatened them with legal action, but if they do not obey the law, we will enforce the law,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to “incitement” to commit a crime, a vague term often used against those suspected of having criticized the government.
The Workers Blood censorship is part of an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in Cambodia that is gaining momentum ahead of national elections in July. Prime Minister Hun Sen, approaching his fourth decade in power, banned the main opposition party ahead of the last election five years ago, and is now preparing to hand over control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to his son Hun Manet .
Civil society organisations, opposition politicians and rappers are strongly reminded of the limits of what can and cannot be said in an increasingly restrictive society.
“I think the government is trying to legitimize itself and this is a transitional period of power, so they view civil society as a threat,” Khun Tharo, program manager for CENTRAL, told Al Jazeera. “The government feels that this song has really been discredited [them].”
A song in search of justice
Although the music industry in Cambodia has exploded in recent years, few rappers except Sokun dare to directly incorporate social commentary into their songs. Other rappers who have spoken out against the government’s actions have received death threats or been forced to apologize publicly.
“I always want to use songs as mirrors to reflect the reality in society,” Sokun told VOD, an online media outlet in Cambodia, last year. “I just want to speak the truth.”
Sokun grew up in a poor household near the World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat and dropped out of school in his early teens. borders, and filled with brutal removals of the rich and powerful.
A judge offered to release Sokun if he apologized for his lyrics, but the rapper refused and served time, increasing his popularity across Cambodia.
The 24-year-old now has more than a quarter of a million subscribers to his YouTube channel and continues to focus on political issues and injustice, producing a song describing his incarceration and another about filling up Phnom Penh’s lakes for development.
But it was Workers Blood that struck a chord with the government because it was a reminder of the scale of garment worker protests that began in late 2013, says Sabina Lawreniuk, a University of Nottingham research fellow who studies the Cambodian garment industry.
Tens of thousands of workers took to Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh to demand higher wages and the government was eventually forced to double the minimum wage to $160 a month. It has since raised wages annually, even as aggressive new laws about unions have been introduced that rights groups say are designed to suppress independent union organization.
“Labor politics in Cambodia are explicitly intertwined with electoral politics in a way that some other human rights issues and struggles in Cambodia are not,” Lawreniuk told Al Jazeera. “That huge mobilization of people really upset the government.”
The protests came in the wake of the highly contested 2013 elections, when the Cambodian National Salvation Party terrified the CPP by winning a large share of the vote on a platform calling for wage increases for garment workers and civil servants.
The Veng Sreng protests ended only after the police and military began firing into the crowd on January 3, 2014, injuring dozens and killing at least four people. One protester, 15-year-old Khem Sophat, is still missing to this day.
“I have no hope that he will be found, his friend said he was shot and lying in the street,” Sophat’s father, Khem Soeun, told Al Jazeera. “My child was very gentle, he always helped the family.”
Sophat had lied about his age to get a job in a garment factory and sent money to his parents every month, his father said. He last saw his son nine months before the protests when he visited him for the Khmer New Year holiday.
“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 long, it reminded her of Veng Sreng Street.
The deaths were the result of “indiscriminate firing and disproportionate use of force by the military police,” according to a fact-finding investigation conducted shortly after the protest by the labor rights organization Asia Monitor Resource Center. No one has ever been held responsible for the deaths of the workers.
“Nine years of waiting for justice, a long time has passed and no one responsible, longing for a solution,” Sokun raps. “The eyes saw the truth, unforgettable, stuck in the minds of those who live.”
Vorn Pov, chairman of the Independent Democratic Informal Economy Association (IDEA), was beaten bloodily by government security forces during the protest. A prominent labor activist associated with Veng Sreng, Pov was questioned by police about Sokun’s song and later forced to remove it from his organization’s Facebook page, even though IDEA had not sponsored the song.
“When you listen to Sokun’s song, it’s shocking, like it’s still new and fresh and so unfair to the victims,” Pov told Al Jazeera. “I feel that this society cannot be relied upon to find the truth when injustice happens.”
Avoid the ‘red line’
Culture Ministry spokesman Long Bunna Siriwadh declined to comment on what prompted the incitement charge specifically with regard to Workers Blood.
“I’m not analyzing the meaning, I’m just talking about the principle of law and social order,” Siriwadh told Al Jazeera, claiming that Sokun could continue to make songs. “He can continue to do what he wants. But don’t cause unrest in society, respect the law – it’s that easy.”
Hun Sen set a clear red line in a recent speech, warning the opposition party and other potential opponents that criticism of the ruling CPP would be met with legal action or violence. The CPP has already sued one of the vice presidents of the opposition Candlelight Party for $1 million in defamation damages after he claimed there were problems with the election process, and this week police arrested another Candlelight leader for allegedly issuing a bad check.
In the run-up to Cambodia’s elections, freedom of speech is mostly curtailed, and while curbs may be eased later, the situation will never go back to how it was, said researcher Lawreniuk of the University of Nottingham.
“While it feels like authoritarian control tightens around election time and then releases, government power has always been consolidated over time,” Lawreniuk said. “That’s what has enabled this slide into de facto one-party rule.”
Sokun, who has remained largely silent since the crackdown, declined to comment for Al Jazeera, saying he was now experiencing “a lot of trouble in his life”. But he denies that the song violates the law.
“There’s nothing wrong with the song, there’s no incitement to cause a disturbance,” he told Voice of America shortly after the video was censored. “We want the authorities to find justice for the victims, but instead they are taking action against whoever is posting [the song]I regret this.
The original posts may have been deleted, but Sokun’s song is still widely shared across social media on other pages and platforms. If the government’s goal was to prevent the video clip from being seen, it failed to do so, CENTRAL’s Tharo said.
“Now it’s gone viral,” he said. “I think our goal was achieved because the whole idea was to create a public memory [about Veng Sreng].”