prek ampil commune, Kandal province – With six children and rice to grow, 54-year-old Som Tom doesn’t have much free time.
But three nights a week at 9 pm, he settles himself next to the battered old radio that hangs on a pillar beneath his stilt house.
It’s time for the latest installment of “Son Under Moonlight,” a gripping radio drama about a poor-but-clever boy who surmounts hardship, sorrow, war and cruelty to lead the Cambodian people to peace.
“This story seems to remind me of everything that happened to me and my family under the Khmer Rouge regime,” marvels Som Tom, who would not think of missing an episode.
The story is so compelling that Tha Samon, a banana vendor from Kompong Cham, sometimes can’t listen to it. “I feel too sad, if they talk about the Khmer Rouge,” she said, adding it feels like a fist is squeezing her heart.
“Son Under Moonlight” is actually the life story of Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to its creator, and its frequent airings are a political consultant’s dream.
The story is divided into 90 hour-long episodes, and the epic has already run once on Bayon radio. Now it’s running on Apsara radio and regional stations, and is scheduled to continue through mid-January.
That means potential voters across the country will be tuning in as the charismatic hero triumphs over one problem after another.
The fact that he rises to head the ruling CPP, which hopes to dominate the commune council election voting in February, is either a monumental coincidence, or very clever timing.
One election observer opts for the latter point of view.
“That’s unfair! That’s unfair!” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, an independent election monitoring group. He said he doubts very much if the stations would be as willing to broadcast similar programs about Sam Rainsy or Prince Norodom Ranariddh in the weeks leading up to the election.
“Well, maybe a little bit about Prince Ranariddh, because the Minister of Information is Funcinpec,” he amended. “But Sam Rainsy, I don’t think so.”
Koul Panha conceded that “Son Under Moonlight” is dramatic entertainment rather than direct political programming.
But he says the stations’ willingness to commit such a huge amount of time to the series during the election cycle shows that nothing has changed since 1998, when UN observers sharply criticized Cambodian broadcast media for favoring the CPP.
He said the National Election Committee has an electronic media monitoring group, but when he asked about equal access for all parties, he was told that their job was to “check only political programming prepared by NGOs.”
“It‘s clear that no serious action is being taken by the government on [equal access],” he said.
Huy Veasna, who wrote the script, says the idea grew out of a short radio program he wrote on episodes in Hun Sen’s life reported in the biography “Hun Sen: Strongman of Cambodia” by Harish and Julie Mehta.
The program proved popular, and he set out to write a longer version, using the book, his own interviews with Hun Sen’s friends and family, and new interviews with the prime minister.
It does not pretend to be a documentary.
The lead character, for example, is not called Hun Sen, but Commander Samrech (Success), and the first episode depicts his humble birth in Kompong Cham. A magical light shoots through the house as he is born; a few years later, a Cham prophet predicts the young lad will save his country.
The title comes from a vivid dream Hun Sen’s mother told him about. She dreamed of a very full moon, and awoke to realize she was pregnant with him. The serial concludes 27 years later in 1979, when the commander and his loyal troops drive Pol Pot from power.
Huy Veasna said that when Hun Sen learned about the project, he volunteered to help, even writing some parts.
The prime minister has long been interested in the arts, describing himself as a “writer” on his passport. He has written two books and a number of poems and songs, some of which have been recorded.
Huy Veasna said he found the premier’s story very inspiring, and hopes that Hun Sen does not find it too painful to be reminded of some of the low points of his life.
Even the happy parts, such as the marriage of Commander Success to nurse Mariny of Krouch Chhmar Hospital, are tainted by the grim authoritarianism of the Khmer Rouge years. They wed in a bleak group ceremony organized by the Angkar.
But the sad parts, such as the death of the couple’s newborn son, were hard even for the actors to record, said Huy Veasna, who portrays Commander Success. The baby’s name in the show is Sen Komsott (Too Sorrowful).
Huy Veasna said the prime minister’s favorite episode is Number 70, in which a group of rebel soldiers fight against Pol Pot. The episode also describes the 22 days the commander spent in prison in Vietnam before being picked to help drive the Khmer Rouge from power.
The series can be heard on Apsara radio in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 to 10 pm and on FM99 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 to 11 pm.
It’s also running on FM 103 in Kompong Cham, weekend nights at 9 pm; and in Siem Reap on Fridays and Saturdays at 9 pm. “All the radios are playing this opera,” said Chhorn Pheng Leng, the director of 103 FM.
Huy Veasna is turning his radio drama into a novel, which he expects will be finished in two to three months.
Thai Anorak Satia, director-general of Bayon Radio and TV, said that some extremely popular productions are eventually offered to the nation’s schools, but there are no plans to do so with “Son Under Moonlight.”
“I don’t think [the prime minister] has any ambition to put this story in the national education program at all,” he said. “It would depend on how popular it is in the public view, or on the Ministry of Education.”
Chhorn Pheng Leng said he thinks it would make good educational material, as it is an interesting story and Hun Sen a strong nationalist. “His story can be a good example for the young generation,” he said.
He said he does not plan to air biographies of any other Cambodian leaders, “no Sam Rainsy, no Ranariddh, no Chea Sim, because they have not been produced.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)