There are no glitzy bars, nightclubs or discotheques in the sleepy coastal district of Koh Kong, where most people eke out a living fishing or cutting mangrove.
So when Prime Minister Hun Sen announced his ban on karaoke, most people were not concerned, according to a report issued by CARE International in Cambodia.
Then the residents got the word from local officials: as of Nov 23, they could no longer offer karaoke in commercial establishments, regardless of size.
“Singing karaoke is completely prohibited,” one villager told CARE workers. “I asked the officials, if I don’t want to sell the equipment, can I keep it for my children to sing? They said no.”
Yuth Phouthang, governor of Koh Kong province, disputes that draconian view. Families do not have to turn in their personal karaoke machines.
“It’s OK to sing at home,” he said Tuesday. “No one is opposed to that.”
The problem, said Yuth Phouthang, is that authorities believe virtually every establishment in Koh Kong’s thriving karaoke district is a front for prostitution.
“All the karaoke shops are served by prostitutes, and we want them to change to other jobs. If they do, we can reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS,” he said.
According to the CARE report, as many as 250 people have lost their jobs in Koh Kong because of the ban.
The aid workers say the karaoke parlors run the gamut, from small mom-and-pop operations to larger establishments, and that some provide sexual services and some don’t.
The karaoke workers say there aren’t many other jobs open to them in a region with few factories. “When I work in karaoke, I can save money and send some to my family so they can buy rice,” said one.
The NGO workers worry the ban will push more women into overt prostitution, already a major industry in the area due to its location near the Thai border, which as many as 1,000 people cross daily.
“It is not fair that they close down karaoke shops but not brothels,” said one aid worker. “The girls don’t have money, so they will go to the brothels and work as direct sex workers.” (Additional reporting by Van Roeun)