He may be the strongman of Cambodian politics, but Prime Minister Hun Sen shows a softer side in the lyrics he writes to traditional Khmer songs.
The prime minister has written enough songs over the years to fill 20 compact discs, often spending some of his free time researching old Khmer musical scores, according to Thai Norak Satia, director of Bayon TV Production, which airs some of the premier’s compositions.
“He’ll spend as much as $150 to hire a good singer and arrangement for one song,” Thai Norak Satia said. “His aim is to preserve Khmer culture and Khmer good customs.
“He is a man who loves nature and real life. Sometimes he’ll finish three or four poems on a helicopter trip to visit people out in the districts. Usually, the poems connect nature and the people’s lives out there.”
Eleven songs written by Hun Sen appear on a special “Samdech Hun Sen Souvenir Series” CD recorded at Hang Meas Video Production. The CD is not for sale, but selections are played regularly on Apsara Radio and with accompanying videos on Apsara TV.
Hun Sen joins King Norodom Sihanouk in his penchant for composing music. Some of the King’s songs have been compiled in a book. Others were recorded onto a CD by his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh and given to the King as a souvenir. “All the songs he made are about sentimental life,” a Royal Palace official said.
TVK plays the King’s songs on his birthday and CDs of his music can be found in markets.
The King has been known to sing a few songs. But listeners will not hear Hun Sen’s voice in his song collection, though he often recites his poetry when visiting villagers in the countryside.
While some people may chuckle at the idea of their leader’s dabbling in singing and songwriting, Hang Soth, director of the arts department at the Ministry of Culture, said such efforts can go a long way to restoring Cambodian culture.
“It is good that we have leaders that pay attention to restoring our culture, which had died during the Khmer Rouge time and is being colored by people who follow the foreign cultures,” he said. “It is an important achievement for upgrading our culture.
“Those who love music love peace because music is a specific language which makes you long for life and live in one happy planet, becoming a cool and considerate people.”
Hun Sen’s songs talk about his gratitude to his parents, the lives and fates of farmers and development of special rice field zones at Krang Yov commune in Kandal province, and near Phnom Chisor.
“Life of Pagoda Boy” describes his life when he was sent to live with monks:
“It is pity that pagoda boy from poor rural area is looking for knowledge and training with monks. Living on rice from the monk’s bowl, I rely for my life on the pagoda and Buddhist teachings. Before bed, I serve monks and learn Buddhist teachings with old lay people. I am not disappointed to see other people are rich. I have to learn hard, and with the monk’s education I will become valuable and have a bright future.”
Another song, titled “Hunting Elephants,” teaches a housewife whose husband is an elephant hunter to understand the rules of hunting and how to have a safe and successful hunt.
Thai Norak Satia said Hun Sen particularly enjoys researching Yeekeh, an old Khmer song form that begins with a chorus of singers, followed by drum beats, followed by a main singer.
Thai Norak Satia said Bayon Production plans to release six CDs this year with as many as 100 of Hun Sen’s songs.
“The benefit is that our culture will be re-spread out among the masses,” Thai Norak Satia said.