“The Cambodian government should request the Chinese embassy to have the No
More Bets’ production company temporarily suspend its campaign and to re-evaluate
how the movie would impact Cambodia’s reputation and benefits.”
Facebook post by Chanroeun Pa, Sept 2023
While the post never spells out how Cambodia’s reputation would be impacted, the call by Chanroeun Pa, a well-known public intellectual, nonetheless, is a sentiment shared by many Cambodian netizens as well as various governmental agencies. It prompted the country’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, in late September, to ban the Chinese blockbuster film and to appeal to its “iron-clad friend”, China, to intervene. According to the ministry, the film “does not accurately reflect Cambodia’s true image.” Which begs the question, what is Cambodia’s “true” image? What kind of image does the Cambodian government want to project, and why is it essential to maintain such an image?
Directed by Shen Ao, No More Bets follows several characters who have been lured into Southeast Asia, kidnapped, and forced into a devious web of criminal activities related to online gambling, operated from remote cyberfarms in various parts of the region. The film suggests that Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s operating centers. “We asked the Chinese Embassy not to show No More Bets movie [in China],” said the ministry’s press secretary. To date, however, there are no reports on the Chinese government’s response to Cambodia’s request.
Since 2010, the exponential growth of Cambodian people on social media has, on the one hand, drastically transformed the country’s information landscape, e-government, civic, and political engagement. On the other, it has provided its leadership with a novel modus operandi to control and project its political aesthetics, and its narrative and image of Cambodia. The 2013 general election, where the ruling Cambodia’s People Party (CPP) almost lost to its opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is often seen as the marker for this transition. The CCP’s poor electoral performance was partly attributed to the party’s lack of online presence, thus prompting then-Prime Minister, Hun Sen, to instruct his subordinates and administration to harness their online presence. In 2016, each government department was asked, to establish Facebook pages in order to open lines of communication with citizens and to address people’s complaints—thus effectively making Facebook a critical platform that, according to Sophea Young, “allows people to access information not available in mainstream media, connect with like-minded people, mobilize resources and communicate directly with politicians.” Today, nearly 80 percent of Cambodians are online, which puts Cambodia squarely in a historical transition from the “age of television” to the “age of social media.”
The social media age has not only witnessed the rise of “personal branding” where an individual develops a distinctive public image for commercial gain and/or cultural capital, but also the attempts of governments around the world—from the United States to China, from Europe to South America, and from Africa to Asia—to devise strategies to boost their online presence and enhance their country’s positive image and reputation amongst both its own citizens and other countries. In some instances, the governments’ strategies are being implemented under the auspices of new agencies and by enforcing press restrictions or censorship. This national branding and projection of a positive image could be seen in the Cambodian context through its colloquial terms, such as saang muk mort, “constructing face,” or raksa muk, “to keep face”; to be enfaced is to enjoy the fullness of life, while losing face, bak muk or loork muk in Khmer, is to be alienated, dishonored, and experience shame.
In an attempt to keep its face, raksa muk, on the international stage, Cambodia, in 2017, ahead of the 2018 general election, forced some independent presses critical of its regime—especially those that painted negative images of its government and leadership—to crumble. Up until 2013 and since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement that marked the official end of civil war and Vietnamese occupation in Cambodia, the country’s government, to borrow Sebastian Strangio’s words, “has avoided instituting the sort of heavy-handed censorship and press control regime that characterizes countries like Vietnam, Laos, China and pre-reform Myanmar—a fact that gives the country its reputation for having relatively ‘free’ press.” Strangio also argues that the press situation in Cambodia mirrors its political system: “to the outside world it presents an open face, apparently tolerant of dissent and criticism.” However, the above manoeuvrings by the Cambodian leadership reveal that such tolerance might no longer apply, thus permitting them extrajudicial freedom to take control of narrative and image.
Cambodia’s “face-keeping mission” is to counter information that has the potential to destroy the country’s and its leaders’ image. It does not stop with the press, but weaves its way into other fabrics of the kingdom’s society, namely its art and cultural strands. Since 2010, the government has censored or banned at least eight films or video projects to protect Cambodia’s image, prestige, dignity, and, to a large extent, its leadership’s.
In 2010, the Cambodian government banned the local screening of a 56-minute documentary film, Who Killed Chea Vichea?, by American director Bradley Cox. Winner of a 2011 Peabody Award, among other honors, the documentary was also included on Amnesty International’s list of Top Ten Movies That Matter.
The film, according to its official website, “uncovers the face of dictatorship behind the mask of democracy.” Instead of answering the question of who is behind the unsolved 2004 assassination of influential trade union leader Chea Vichea, who had strong ties to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, the documentary explores corruption in Cambodia. According to Reuters, the film was banned after trade unionists tried to organise a screening on May 10 at the spot where Vichea was killed, to mark International Labor Day. However, police raided the location, leading to a declaration by the government that the movie was an illegal import. It is unknown why the film was explicitly banned, but the Minister of Information suggested the ban may have happened because the documentary intended to blame his government for Vichea’s murder.
A similar ban was imposed in 2016 on another documentary called I Am Chut Wutty, a 57-minute film co-directed by British filmmakers Fran Lambrick and Vanessa de Smet. Chut Wutty was a prominent Cambodian anti-logging activist and director of the Phnom Penh-based environmental watchdog Natural Resource Protection, which helped expose a secretive state sell-off of national parks. In 2012, he was gunned down by military police in a remote Koh Kong province while guiding journalists from Cambodia Daily to see large-scale forest destruction and illegal rosewood smuggling near a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam. This biographical film was due to be screened at Meta House, at the German-Cambodian Cultural Center, but the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts banned it and threatened “strong action” against the venue should the film be shown without the government’s authorisation. The official notice by the ministry to Meta House reads, “The film has not been subject to a content check and was made without permission for shooting from the ministry and competent authorities.” As per Cambodian law, all films shot in Cambodia must obtain a government permit before shooting, and the final cut must be submitted for screening by the authorities.
Apart from these sensitive and politically charged topics, the Cambodian government has also banned international films that directly or indirectly paint Cambodia in a “negative” light. No Escape, a 2015 American action thriller directed by John Erick Dowdle, was banned because, according to CNN, “[t]o avoid implying that Thailand is an anarchistic destination swarming with homicidal Thais, most of the signage that appears in the film’s streets, markets, advertisements and elsewhere is in neighboring Cambodia’s Khmer script, lamely printed upside down.” Shot in Thailand’s tourist-friendly northern cities of Chiang Mai and Lampang with the support of local crew, the film depicts chaos and riots during a coup d’état in an unidentified Southeast Asian country, after the country’s prime minister enters into a deal with a representative of Cardiff, an American company specialising in water systems. Cardiff’s new employee, Jack Dwyer, and his family arrive in the country in the middle of this unrest, and they later become the target, thus attempting to escape. As Thailand itself experienced a number of coups d’état since 1932, the production team, in order to obtain permission to shoot in the country, decided to deploy the Khmer script to divert attention from Thailand, thus implying Cambodia as being the “film’s imaginary, unidentified, land of evil.” The released trailer “had caused a stir on Facebook as it showed riot police brandishing shields emblazoned with what appeared to be Khmer script.” Although the text has no apparent meaning, like the film No More Bets mentioned at the opening of this essay, where Khmer script is also used, to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and some netizens, the deployment of such scripts, is an “insulting and inaccurate depiction of Cambodia.”
This allegedly insulting and inaccurate portrayal of Cambodian history and culture also happened in the case of the 2006 Thai horror movie La-Tha-Pii or Ghost Game. Directed by Sarawut Wichiensarn, La-Tha-Pii is about 11 contestants on a reality TV show who are instructed to stay in an abandoned, haunted prison where horrible atrocities had previously occurred. The haunted venue of choice in the film appears to be set in a fictionalised version of Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s torture centre and prison-turned-museum (also known as Security Prison-21, S-21). While the film’s abandoned prison is named S-11 instead of the museum’s infamous name, the fictional venue also contains “familiar Tuol Sleng images inside, including rows of photos of victims uncannily similar to those shot by Khmer Rouge photographers at S-21.” Some Cambodian commentators described the film as being disgusting, distorting the history and memories of millions of people, and irresponsibly damaging Cambodia’s reputation. Although the film is not known to be officially banned in Cambodia, the original request to film in the country was turned down by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and shooting was carried out in Thailand instead.
A recent example of strong reactions against this so-called “insulting and inaccurate portrayal” of Cambodian culture involves Malaysian YouTuber and comedian Nigel Ng, better known as Uncle Roger, who was “under fire for condemning Cambodian food.” The 32-year-old Ng shared on his YouTube channel a video titled Uncle Roger Make Adobo to celebrate reaching eight million subscribers on July 30, 2023, where he is seen discussing Southeast Asian cuisine with Filipino-American chef Leah Cohen. In this conversation, Ng evaluates Lao and Cambodian cuisine as being the ones from Southeast Asia that do not have tasty food. It caused public uproar in Cambodia, especially among netizens, and many saw his comments as negatively impacting the prestige and identity of Khmer food as well as Cambodia’s tourism. Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism regarded Ng’s comments and evaluation as “offensive” and demanded an apology to the Cambodian people, while the Embassy of Malaysia in Phnom Penh released a statement denouncing the negative comments made by Ng. The statement reads: “The Government of Malaysia wishes to reiterate that it does not condone any words or actions that were harmful or hurtful to others. They [Ng’s words] do not in any way reflect our view.”
If Ng’s comments on a mundane aspect of life based on his personal preference and taste could stir up such public sentiments and offence within the Cambodian public, one can only imagine the magnitude of reaction that may occur should any “negative” comments be made on the subject of Cambodia’s sacred and ancient temples, which, for many, are symbols and a testament of Cambodia’s past glories and prowess—national and cultural identity. However, inferring from Ng’s case and the next few examples of films that were banned in Cambodia, we can hazard a guess on how many Cambodians might respond should such criticism materialise.
In 2017, Matthew Vaughn’s spy action comedy Kingsman: The Golden Circle was banned in Cambodia for using a building resembling the Ta Prohm temple as a drug lord’s secret base. The light-hearted romp chronicles a fictitious British secret spy organisation that joins forces with its American counterpart to find a drug lord’s hideout—which turns out to be a jungle-ringed temple in what appears to be Cambodia. Once discovered, a showdown between the villainess and the titular agents ensues against the computer-generated backdrop of a temple that might be modeled after Ta Prohm—the temple that also served as a setpiece for Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001. Even though Kingsman: The Golden Circle was not shot in Cambodia and does not name the temple, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts took issue with the resemblance, finding it disturbing to see the Cambodian holy site as a place where drugs are produced, people are cruelly killed, and that does not reflect the country’s reality. The ban, which appears to have been prompted by netizens’ reactions, was regarded by Westec Media, the authorised local distributor of the film, as “childish or immature.” The distributor further went on to say, as reported by the BBC, “Every movie cannot depict Cambodia as heaven. You need to face the reality that all countries have criminals.”
In modern times, Cambodian Angkorian temples have been subject to many contestations, the most notable of which was the rivalry between Cambodia and Thailand from 2008 to 2011 over the ownership of the 11th century Preah Vihear temple and its surroundings. Since 2021, a Buddhist temple complex constructed in northeast Thailand has become mired in controversy after claims emerged that the design attempted to replicate Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the soul of the Cambodian nation and the world’s largest religious monument.
However, in Cambodia, it is not only the sacred that is highly guarded but also the profane. The policing of what is considered obscene is recurrent in the Cambodian cultural scene. Films depicting sex or scenes of Cambodian women perceived to be unedifying are often banned from being screened. Bora Chhay’s co-directed dramatic thriller 3.50 had been scheduled for a 2013 premiere and theatrical release, but it took almost two years for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art’s film censorship board to give the go-ahead.
Set and filmed in modern-day Phnom Penh, 3.50 follows the fictional characters of “a foreign journalist, an underground doctor, an auto rickshaw-driver, a street peddler and a prostitute, as they navigate the socio-economic tensions that allow poverty and its problems to flourish.” In the movie, a Phnom Penh-based American documentary filmmaker stumbles onto the story of poor Cambodian families who had been deceived by traffickers promising to employ their young daughters but instead forcing the girls into brothels and the lucrative virginity trade. When her journalistic instincts and moral convictions take over, the filmmaker goes on a quest to cover the story and rescue the victim. While the ministry’s film expert and official said, “we never want to ban any Khmer film that our local directors produce,” and that the delay was due to “bureaucratic complications” and unclear copyright ownership, Chhay told the Phnom Penh Post that “the film was blocked over concerns that it would cast Cambodia in a bad light. The film department was very worried about [showing] dark parts of society and the film bringing a bad reputation to the nation.”
This “delay,” or ostensible ban, became the subject of strong reactions amongst Cambodian youth on Facebook as “hundreds of young Cambodians expressed disappointment and anger,” on Chhay’s Facebook page, according to the Phnom Penh Post, over this delay of “a film they eagerly awaited to watch since it sheds light on one of Cambodia’s most dire social grievances: the reckless business of virgin trafficking and forced prostitution.”
In 2019, this sensitivity surrounding the virginity trade saw a Cambodian court hand down a two-year jail term to 52-year-old fixer and translator Rath Rott Mony for his role in making a 27-minute documentary called My Mother Sold Me: Cambodia, Where Virginity Is a Commodity (2018), produced by the Russia Today channel, with the Cambodian government claiming that the piece contained “fake news.” After the film went viral on social media, the authorities claimed that the girl and her mother, who were the film’s protagonists, had been paid USD200 to lie and damage Cambodia’s reputation, though Russia Today denied such allegations. The case suggests that the Cambodian government prefers to deny the virginity trade in Cambodia, while in a 2014 article, Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia’s shocking trade, The Guardian reported that such an “ugly market” does exist in the kingdom. In addition to the above-banned films/documentaries, other movies that contain sexuality or erotic content are also sensitive matters and are subject to restrictions in Cambodia; this is not limited to local productions but also international blockbusters, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) being banned from screening and circulation in the kingdom.
In the words of Jennifer L. Erickson, “reputation, standing, honor, prestige, and status” often refer to “states’ concern for how other actors view their position and role in world politics.” While Western states tend to use policies to actively create a positive image in international politics, in Asia, reputation tends to focus on “saving face,” with states acting deliberately to shape how other actors perceive them. In Cambodia, bak muk, or “loss of face,” symbolises losing honor and respect in society, implying diminishment, exclusion, alienation, uncleanness, and unwantedness. Cambodia’s practice, as manifested in the censorship of media content and films as detailed above, is consistent with national identity and prestige. Two of the 12 objectives in its cultural policy are “to reduce negative culture and its impact upon the society” and “to raise awareness of true national cultural value, custom, tradition and diversity of cultural expressions [emphasis added].”
In turn, Cambodia’s face-saving mission could also be comprehended through one of the findings by a lecturer in International Relations at the Australian National University, Deepak Nair, that “ASEAN’s face-saving practices are not rooted in essentialist ‘Asian values,’ but emerged from the configuration of personalized leaderships, conservative ruling groups, and foreign policy institutions fostered under authoritarian political arrangements.” Furthermore, in this age of social media, saving face is even more anchored in the Cambodian government’s practice and policy; now, not only can citizens influence the processes of governance and increase the government’s attention to their comments, but they can also monitor how popular culture, such as films, might jeopardise Cambodia’s image and standing in the international stage.
About the author(s)
Reaksmey Yean is an art advocate, an early-career art curator, writer, and researcher. A program director of Silapak Trotchaek Pneik (STP Cambodia), Yean is an Alphawood scholar (SOAS, the University of London for Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art – in Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian Art) and an inaugural SEAsia Award Scholar (2017) of LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore; an Asian Cultural Council fellow (2018), and a beneficiary of Dr. Karen Mcleod Adair grant for MA in Asian Art Histories at LASALLE College of the Arts. He is currently an LL.M. candidate at Royal University of Law and Economics/University of Paris 8 in Public International Law. While his current research is on art restitution in the context of international law, his general academic interest is in Khmerology, Buddhist Arts and Art History.