As Friday evening fell Monivong Boulevard was dark and quiet, as the dozens of karaoke parlors that normally cast their lights onto the street as a beacon to revelers were shuttered—all victims of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ban on nighttime establishments he says are encouraging violence and lawlessness.
Outside Sovann Devi karaoke, owner Heng Sophat expressed the same frustration that has been repeated by numerous bar and club owners.
“It’s not fair because I have a license from the authorities, but right now they’ve closed me down. It’s not fair: they close the karaoke but they leave the casinos open,” he said.
Several of the more than 20 women who worked at Sovann Devi loitered nearby, some joking that they would go and find work in a brothel.
One, who did not want to be named, said she was returning to her village in Kompong Thom province with only $5 and no money for her family.
“I myself have some money, but I pity my workers,” Heng Sophat said.
In the wake of several recent violent fights at city nightspots, Hun Sen ordered Cambodia’s karaoke parlors and discotheques closed—a sweeping directive that has left bar owners shocked and confused.
As government officials hurried to try and implement the premier’s abrupt order, it became clear that authorities could not define specifically what venues should or should not remain open, leaving a number of bar-type establishments caught in limbo.
“What is a dance club? Am I a night club?” asked Pen Samnang, owner of the Heart of Darkness on Street 51, a popular bar for foreigners that is frequently crowded with dancing patrons on the weekends.
Like most bar owners in the city, Pen Samnang was summoned to the police Thursday morning and told that because his establishment was considered a “nightclub” he would have to shut his doors. He said he would close for a week and then try to reopen as a restaurant.
Though on Friday, Pen Samnang said he would be allowed to remain open if he kept his bar’s lights up and discouraged dancing.
“[The police] said it can’t be romantic,” he said.
Other bar owners along Street 51 said they met with police Friday morning who told them they could stay open, but under vague conditions.
Government officials appear divided on the usefulness of Hun Sen’s directive. Many, including Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, have applauded the measure, saying it sends a clear message that Cambodia will not tolerate the crime associated with some nightspots.
Council of Ministers spokesman Khieu Thavika said Friday that silencing Cambodia’s thriving night life isn’t likely to hurt the economy.
“These bars and clubs are not sources of economic growth. On the contrary, they are a source of risk,” he said.
But others remain concerned that the shutdown will put thousands out of work and into the streets, where without any other job opportunities they could be driven to more illicit activities like prostitution.
“What bothers me is not just the loss of business, the money, but the total disregard for job loss—it’s not just the waitresses but the motodops and the guys I buy ice from,” said Dave Manson, owner of the former Sharky’s Bar and Restaurant.
The sign outside of Sharky’s has been painted over, erasing the word “bar” from the name, and food menus have been placed conspicuously on every table.
Though he was told Thursday to close, Manson says he can now stay open. But along the rest of Street 130, the numerous karaoke parlors that use to operate are now closed.
“[The rules] change every 10 minutes. It’s fluid,” Manson said.