Song Ban

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2004 - Cambodian men have long practiced the tradition of keeping mistresses, or, as it translates from Khmer, second wives. The government rarely stepped in to regulate mistresses, as society mostly kept the practice quiet.

In recent years, however, high profile cases have prompted the government to intervene. In one instance, the wife of a high-ranking government official allegedly threw acid on her husband's mistress, permanently disfiguring the young woman. In another, the reputed mistress of Prime Minister Hun Sen, singer Piseth Peaklika, was shot and killed by reportedly hired assassins.

The government responded by cracking down on the practice of keeping mistresses -- including a ban on all songs that refer to the second wife.

In one banned song, titled "Which Number Am I?", the singer laments her position as one in a long line of mistresses.

At a conference on women's issues, I asked the government's minister of women's affairs, Mu Sochua, to explain the song ban.

"Violence against women is a really severe problem for us," she told me. "The lyrics of the music -- of the songs -- put women at a very subservient position. It also does not give women the hope for tomorrow. It tells women that it's okay to be second wives -- that it's your destiny. It's your karma."

But another group of government officials opposed the song ban. They said people should not be told how to live.

One of them, Senator Chhang Song, was educated in the U.S. and said that freedom of expression trumps any need to change society.

"A lot of us old men sometimes fall in love with younger women," he told me one day in his office. "And vice versa. It's a woman's affair.

"I don't think it's good to have a country full of second wives and third wives, but again it's a personal choice. I don't think we should promote that, no. But we cannot say to a person, 'Hey, do not have a mistress.'"

Women's rights advocates argue that it's not a personal choice and say male officials defy the song ban because they are afraid they will lose their freedom to keep mistresses.

Women's Media Center Director Tive Sarayet:

"I think most of the women they are not happy to do this," she said. "The reason I think they do it is money. Because they are poor, they need to support their families."

Chhang Song agreed that poor women are easy targets. But he said songs with titles such as, "Kill Me With an Injection Please," in which a second wife sings about her unhappiness, should not be banned.

"It is a flagrant violation of free expression," he argued. "It's as simple as that.

"It has nothing demeaning to women. It just states a condition, a personal condition of a woman, or a group of women. Like 'Killing Me Softly,' or, 'I Hate Myself for Loving You.' That kind of song. It's very innocent."

I went to the market to see if I could buy some of the songs, in spite of the ban. I found people haggling over the Thai-inspired melody, "All Women Want That."Instead of discouraging people from listening to the songs, the ban had raised the demand to hear them. And prices went up.

Most Cambodians agree that the government can't stop them from listening to their favorite songs -- or that doing so will change the way they live. In the end, it is up to Cambodia's courts to decide whether the song ban will stick -- and whether similar actions can be taken in the future.

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