Television Station Brings Cambodia to the US

Turn on cable channel 22 in Long Beach in the US state of California and you will get a little taste of Cambodia—the daydreaming beauties of karaoke, the pratfalling comedians with their greasepaint mustaches, the suave heroes of movies in Khmer made by King Norodom Siha­nouk and other Cambodians.

The Asian-American Broad­casting Company, the US’ only Khmer-language channel, also carries meatier fare. Channel founder and president Ratanak Roth Oeurn interviewed Prince Noro­dom Ranariddh when the prince visited the US after the factional fighting of 1997. Prince Norodom Sirivudh, after another one-on-one interview, once called Ratanak Oeurn “the Cambodian Tom Brokaw,” referring to a famous US news anchor.

Cambodian-Americans tune to the AABC for nostalgia, to reconnect with their heritage or to get news from the country where many of their relatives still live, said Ratanak Oeurn, who was in Cambodia last week to cover the Asean Summit.

“They are eager to learn anything about what is happening here. They know brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, grandparents, aunts or uncles. Whatever happens here, Cambodian-Ameri­cans are concerned. I want to be a bridge to bring that to them and to unify Khmer people.”

Ratanak Oeurn, 39, was a teen-ager when Khmer Rouge soldiers rousted him and his five siblings from their home in Pursat province and sent them to a work camp. His father died during the Pol Pot period, and he and his brothers fled to the Thai border in 1979, where he ended up in an orphanage.

He and his friends wanted to learn English but had no money. So they learned by sitting outside the best private school in the camp and watching through the window. “I still have good friends from the US [from that time] and they’re doing well,” he said.

Sponsored by a brother’s wife’s uncle, he arrived in the US in 1981. After leaving college, he opened up a business doing interpretation and legal services and founded a charity: the Khmer Orphan Relief of America.

To distribute food and supplies, he returned to Cambodia in 1989. “It was a very closed country, but I was able to move around because I started where I was born [in Pursat] and people knew me.”

As he rallied the Cambodian-American community to help alleviate suffering back home, he said he became frustrated that there were few ways to reach the community other than a few partisan newspapers.

He had developed a taste for television through his hobby—karaoke singing. He said he was one of the first singers from the US to produce a tape with karaoke star Pich Chenda. In 1991 he bought a camera to produce karaoke videos, and while none were ever distributed, he got a taste of camerawork.

In 1994 he convinced the area cable company that the Cambodian-American community was large enough that it was worth giving him a channel. Despite a severe dearth of experience, equipment or money, the station opened with 10 hours of programming a day. “It was tough, like I had put a cuff on my hands and feet. There was nobody to help me.”

But he gathered advertisers and kept expanding his programming, which is now up to 16 hours a day.

Though the channel keeps him busy enough, Ratanak Oeurn still comes to Cambodia with shipments of donations, most from his advertisers. For this trip it was flood relief, donated to about 400 people

Long Beach’s Cambodian-American population is about 50,000, and Ratanak Oeurn believes the majority tune into his station at least occasionally. Most viewers are over 35, he estimates, but he hopes karaoke videos will bring interest from the kids.

“Through karaoke I think I can interest children to learn Khmer. It’s very important for them to speak and read so they can return here and visit [relatives].”

Unlike Cambodian TV stations, AABC ran the precedent-setting political debates before February’s commune council elections.

Ratanak Oeurn says that television in Cambodia is “over-controlled by a certain group of people”—including government officials—harming the quality of news and local programming.

Ratanak Oeurn hopes that US youngsters who watch his news and politics shows will become interested in politics. Currently many Cambodian-Americans do not even vote, he said.

“I would love to motivate a Cambodian kid to become a councilman or a Senator…. In the free world, you have to have a voice.”

Ministry of Information officials say Cambodian television is dominated by foreign shows and have issued warnings to stations to begin producing more local programming. But Ratanak Oeurn is skeptical of claims that foreign programming is harming Cambodians by diluting the national culture.

“The more programming they have, the more choices to see the world,” he said. “People will have more understanding of other societies.”


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