Socheata Vong

My thoughts about beloved Cambodia

Author: socheata (page 1 of 3)

Yuon: What’s in a xenonym?


A version of this article first appeared in Vietnamese in the online journal Talawas (Autumn 2009)

A Khmer version of this article was published in the Koh Santepheap Daily on April 2,  2010

Someone once said, “To understand others, you must first understand yourself.” We believe that understanding the Khmer language alone and living in Cambodia is necessary but not sufficient to truly open up the Khmer soul to non-Khmers. Khmerness is speaking the language, understanding Khmer idioms, appreciating Khmer jokes and their nuances, and enjoying Khmer music and poetry. It is a feeling that resonates with Khmer people living in Cambodia. Being Khmer should not be synonymous with Pol Pot. The actions that Pol Pot committed are complete anathema to the Khmer soul. A Khmer is someone who is proud of the civilization that Angkor has left as its legacy.

The Khmer have lived under threat of extinction (perhaps even saved by French colonialism), and who have witnessed the disappearance of Khmer territory to their powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. This is the context within which we write.

As Ronnie Yimsut has elaborated in a 2005 online essay: “These [invader] perceptions about Vietnam are also quite valid, historically speaking. The so-called Kampuchea Krom (area in … southern Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong delta region), and the former “Kingdom of Champa” (area in northern Vietnam) are two historical examples of successful Vietnamese annexation and expansionism.”

Pol Kang wrote in a 2004 article, “During the period 1813-15, Vietnamese perpetrated the infamous massacre known to every Khmer as prayat kompup te ong. It involved the most barbarous torture technique, in which the Khmer were buried alive up to their neck. Their heads were used as the stands for a wood stove to boil water for the Vietnamese masters.

Let us consider only the issue of language and the word used by Cambodians for the people of Vietnam: yuon. This remains a bone of contention because many non-Khmer have argued that the word is fundamentally racist in common parlance.

The word yuon may have come from the word yueh, what the Mandarin Chinese call Vietnam, yueh nam. The word nam means south in Chinese. Yueh indicates the name of the people of that region. Therefore, yueh means Viet or Vietnamese in Chinese, and yueh nam means the yueh people of the south. In this case, south means south of China. South Vietnam pronounces it yeaknam.

Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), the celebrated Chinese ambassador to Cambodia in the 13th century, indicated in his report that there was already a large population of Chinese settling in Cambodia at that time. He said that the Chinese preferred life in the Khmer Empire because it was easier than in China. There were a lot of Chinese men marrying the native Cambodian women. The word yuon may have derived from the Chinese word yueh to indicate the Vietnamese.

George Coedes, an expert on Southeast Asia, found evidence of the word yuon inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050). Adhémar Leclère, a colonial French governor of Cambodia who lived there 25 years, used the word yuon throughout his book Histoire du Cambodge depuit le 1er siècle de notre ère (Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1914: 99, 413, 432, 434, 435, and 469).

While yuon has been equated with the word “savage” by David Roberts in a 2002 article for the Washington Times, in fact, the word savage in Cambodian translates to pourk prey or phnong (which unfortunately also refers to an ethnic hill tribe minority living in Cambodia). Cambodians call Vietnamese yuon the same way they call Indian khleung, Burmese phoumea, French barang and Chinese chen. These are all xenonyms and Khmer transliterations.

When the Vietnamese sometimes call Khmer people ngoi mien (when they should use ngoi campuchia), this is inaccurate because the word mien is the name for a minority group that is not ethnically Khmer. According to the Mien Network (, “The Mien are a sub-group of the Yao in China, and they originated from Southwest China. According to 1995 population figures published by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai, there are over 40,000 Mien living in 173 villages in Northern Thailand. Larger numbers are found in Laos (85,000) and Vietnam (474,000), with the majority still in China. According to the 1990 census, there are about 2.1 million Yao living in China.”

Thus, it would be like saying of an Englishman that he is Basque. The geography is completely off, but the possible connotation may be of a nation without a state. In the late 17th century, the Vietnamese court of Hue changed the names of the Cambodian princesses Ang Mei, Ang Pen, Ang Peou and Ang Snguon to the Vietnamese-sounding names of Ngoc-van, Ngoc-bien, Ngoc-tu, and Ngoc-nguyen, respectively. Phnom Penh is also known in Vietnamese as Nam Vang. Indeed, our venerated Phnom Penh noodles are otherwise advertised in Vietnamese as heu tiev nam vang.

Moreover, while we call Chao Doc and Saigon (what is now HCMC) Mot Chrouk and Prey Nokor, respectively, this is the equivalent phenomenon in use when it comes to the word yuon, that of a xenonym in current use.

We surmise that confusion over the word yuon arises from the fact that the word Vietnam(ese) exists. The misunderstanding is that for Khmer people to opt for using the word yuon instead of the word Vietnam(ese) gives non-Khmer the impression that we are racists. To say this would be the equivalent of saying that anyone who uses the word Cambodian instead of Khmer is racist.

When we speak in Khmer, it is very awkward and does not sound right to the ear to use the word Vietnam, and even less so Vietnamese.

However, when we speak in English or French, it is more natural to use the word Vietnamese or Vietnamien, and it would become awkward to use the word yuon.

For example, if we want to say that “fishermen are mostly Vietnamese”, and both words, yuon and Vietnamese, are used in a Khmer sentence, the result would be as follows: pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè youn, or pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè choun cheat vietnam. It therefore requires more syllables to use the word Vietnam to describe the Vietnamese because we have to say choun cheat vietnam (literally National of Vietnam) to describe a Vietnamese person. We cannot say pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè vietnam because Vietnam is a country. In Khmer, the word Vietnamese per se does not exist unless one uses the word yuon.

It is rare in the Khmer language to have a racist word attributed to different ethnic groups. However, this does not mean that salty language does not exist. To the contrary, when wishing to disrespect someone, we add an adjective “a” in front of the word that we intend to use. If we say a yuon, then it is a sign of disrespect, but not necessarily a racist remark. To be racist requires that the following words be used: a katop (equating a Vietnamese to a diaper), a gnieung (a probable play on the common Vietnamese family name Nguyen) or a sakei daung (equating a Vietnamese to a coconut husk). Some might compare the word yuon to the word “nigger”, but that is too strong and ahistorical a comparison. In any case, to have called someone in 1860 racist for using the word nigger would be historically inaccurate. These were conventions then, and evolved out of fashion later.

The only basis to this is when, during the Lon Nol period (Khmer Republic 1970-1975), yuon was indeed used in a derogatory fashion during attacks on Vietnamese people. Thus, the word took on a negative connotation in the 1970s and was allegedly banned in the 1980s when Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam. Sour Vietnamese soup, samlar machou yuon, became samlar machou vietnam, but reverted to its original name in the 1990s. Of course, the Khmer Rouge also used the word yuon, as when they characterised the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as yuon-TAC, an agent of the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian People’s Party. But again, just because the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Republicans hijacked the word does not mean it must now be abandoned in everyday language.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not represent the views of their employers or the US government.

Sophal Ear is an assistant professor of national security affairs in Monterey, California. Kenneth T So is an engineer and Khmer historian.

Source:  The Phnom Penh Post

Survey of Cambodian public opinion

A Cambodian poll was conducted by the International Republican Institute from July 31 through August 26, 2009 to obtain primary data on the thoughts and opinions of the Cambodian citizenry.  The poll was released on February 2, 2010. View full slides>>

Is the Country Moving in the Right/Wrong Direction?

  • 79% of Cambodians said the country was moving in the right direction, mainly because of the infrastructure, including roads, schools, health clinics, pagodas etc.
  • 20% see the country as moving in the wrong direction, citing the corruption, price of goods, and poverty as the greatest obstacle to their country’s future.

For each topic, please tell me if you want political parties to spend more time, the same amount of time, or less discussing it.

  • 93% of Cambodians said they wanted political parties to spend more time discussing “how to improve government services such as education and health”, and 88% wanted them to spend more time addressing the issue of corruption.  In addition, 86% wanted to hear more about job creation and the economy and how to lower food prices and 83% wanted to hear more about development projects.

Are you and your family richer, the same or poorer than one year ago?

  • 39% said they were poorer than a year ago while 36% said they were the same.

One year in the future, do you think you and your family will be richer, the same or poorer than now?

  • 40% thought they would be richer while 32% thought they would be the same.

Source:  IRI

Secrets of Angkor

In conjunction with the July cover story of National Geographic Magazine, get a comprehensive look at Angkor and the new evidence: remains f outlying settlements, at least 74 additional temples and a vital, complex water system.

In its July 2009 issue, the National Geographic magazine will feature Angkor Wat, including a supplemental map depicting the rise and fall of Angkor Wat. The Secrets of Angkor will be aired on the National Geographic Channel on July 14 @9pm.

Divining Angkor
By Richard Stone

Angkor’s end is a sobering lesson in the limits of human ingenuity. The Khmer had transformed their world – a monumental investment that would have been excruciating for the kingdom’s rulers to forsake. “Angkor’s hydraulic system was an amazing machine, a wonderful mechanism for regulating the world.” Fletcher says. Its engineers managed to keep the civilization’s signal achievement running for six centuries – until, in the end, a greater force overwhelmed them. View full story>>>

“Angkor’s hydraulic system was an amazing machine, a wonderful mechanism for regulating the world.” Roland Fletcher

Source:  National Geographic














Reading: a novel obsession among Cambodian youth

By Lim Seang Heng

A growing market for works by local writers has seen a rise in the number of new authors, though high print costs and piracy remain a problem.

On the second floor of the International Book Centre in Phnom Penh, 21-year-old Dy Vutheara is working out which book to buy from the hundreds of Khmer-language novels on offer. While she enjoys a variety of genres from detective stories to comics, she eventually settles on a romance.

“Most of them are good, so I have to weigh them up and decide which one would be best,” said Dy Vutheara, an environmental science student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).  Dy Vutheara has bought more than 100 novels in the last three years since her teacher suggested she read more. She is not alone. About 40 of her friends also like to read, and she says between them they keep track of newly published novels.  “We never miss any new releases even though we don’t have much money to buy them,” she said. “So we take it in turns to buy the books and read them.”

Kim Sophat, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, says the growing market in Khmer novels is leading to an increase in the number of writers. “A lot of young people from the provinces and from urban centres are starting to write more and more. They can now make a decent living out of it,” Kim Sophat said.

Steady increase
One of the country’s best-known novelists, Mao Samnang, who writes under the pen name Rabbit, has noticed that the number of books published in each print run has increased steadily over the past decade – reinforcing the notion that more people are reading. But she says print costs remain an obstacle to increasing readership. Mao Samnang earns about US$500 for each of her novels, which take one month on average to complete. She says that if readers knew how difficult it is to write a book, they would complain less about the price. Despite the relatively high cost of books, she says many fans keep up with her new works by renting them from bookstores.

Keo Somaly is a bookworm who has decided to spend her two dollars of food money to buy her favourite book – Neang Macha, or Lady Fish. She says many youngsters share her taste, which helps to offset the cost. “Today is my turn to buy the book, and this one costs 7,000 riels [US$1.69),” she said. “My friends and I take turns [buying books] since we don’t have much money, but we love to read.”

The emergence of soap operas and foreign movies has some local writers worried. But Mao Samnang says her main concern is piracy. “Illegal copies can kill writers. Soon after a novel is printed, there are many photocopies available on the market,” she said. “The copy is much cheaper, but it is really harmful for novelists and for the printing houses.”

The Culture Ministry’s Kim Sophat said authors should sue those who produce illegal copies of their works. Seong Phos, a Royal University professor, agrees and says that counterfeiters should be treated as thieves under the law and should be punished – although he has never seen that happen.

The future
Dy Vutheara says that most themes currently explored in Khmer novels lack deep meaning. “Readers just scan the cover and the first few pages, and they can tell how the story will end,” she said.

Looking to the future, Mao Samnang said she wants to make some changes to her novels. She believes that with greater exposure to foreign books, and a desire to see greater liveliness and creativity in local books, young readers are ready for a new approach.

“Even though we novelists can barely survive, we try to keep our literature alive and maintain the long-lasting tradition of the Khmer novel for the next generation,” she said.

Source:  The Phnom Penh Post 

Killing Fields: Long Road to Justice

In its World Untold Stories on “Killing Fields: Long Road to Justice”, CNN sheds new light on the atrocities committed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979.

Dan Rivers uncovers never before televised video of Khmer Rouge prison interrogator Ta Chan, allegations of corruption at UN-backed trial of Khmer leaders, and rarely seen archive footage of Pol Pot

In a groundbreaking new documentary CNN’s Dan Rivers on the hunt for Ta Chan, the chief interrogator of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison camp. For the program, CNN obtained exclusive and previously unseen footage of Ta Chan giving a tour of another Khmer Rouge jungle prison. CNN’s Rivers also details corruption allegations at the Phnom Penh trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, reporting on prosecution and defense fears that the trial will be tainted by the allegations. Full story>>>


May 2: 8:30 a.m., 5:00 p.m., 10:30 p.m. GMT
May 3: 2:30 p.m. GMT
May 4: 2:30 a.m. GMT

Equivalent Cambodia airtimes (Cambodia is +7 hours difference from GMT):

Saturday, May 2 — 3:30 p.m., and then again at midnight
Sunday, May 3 — 5:30 a.m., 9:30 p.m. GMT
Monday, May 4 — 9:30 a.m. GMT

Source:  CNN

Duch, asking forgiveness by telling more truth?

By Socheata Vong

March 31, 2009 will not be only marked as one part of the beginning of the trial of former head of S- 21, Duch, but also remembered as a historic moment when one of the most Cambodian notorious criminal revealed his crimes and sought forgiveness committed in the darkest page of our history.

Should we ever truly forgive him as a point of closure at the end of this trial? That he was taken a hostage and he had no choice but to kill, as I am personally not convinced, would in no mean lead to acceptance of apology and forgiveness.

From a human personal emotional perspective, I seriously doubt if Cambodians should ever forgive him, especially at this stage of judicial process.  One thing that is clear is that his remorse will never wipe away suffering for the loss of our irreplaceable victims; however, at the end of the day, Duch should realize that his confession is not about an apology.  It is about revealing the truth and telling more what is beyond the pictures, testimony of survivors, and other discovered evidence.  He needs to tell his version of crime.  The truth will serve as a charity he does at the last part of his life so everyone will comprehend the reason of existence of such a crime and people involved.

Ministry should review all songs before release

Letter to the editor
The Phnom Penh Post
Friday, March 20, 2009

Dear Editor,

I strongly support the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in banning rude or obscene songs [“Ministry bans ‘obscene’ songs to save traditions”, in the March 18 edition of The Phnom Penh Post].

As I have observed, many Cambodians prefer to use foul language as a typical way of joking to entertain themselves and people around them. With that, some artists and comedians have intended to compose songs and jokes in an obscene way because they know people like those words and often imitate them for fun.  One of the songs to be banned was composed by this comedian and has been heard at ceremonies and resung by many at weddings.  Sometimes, he even relates his composed stories with obscenities to some Buddhism practices as a joke, which is unacceptable religiously and culturally.

Finally, I strongly urge those artists and comedians to be responsible for their own acts and act appropriately to contribute to the society in a positive way.  I also recommend that all songs and comedies be reviewed by the ministry before being released for the public.  Being Cambodians, we should be doing well enough to protect our own cultural identity.


Phnom Penh

Source:  The Phnom Penh Post

Strong Youth, Strong Nation!

Youth accounts for more than 60% of the total Cambodian population. Today young people are shaping the future of the country through their various engagements in the society.

The recently established Outstanding Youth Group of Cambodia (OYG-CAM) is an example to prove that. It comprises of dynamic young people who wish to promote friendship and solidarity among all walks of life so that we all can work together for a better society. The following are some of OYG-CAM’s members:

Pichey Ly

Pichey is a junior student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, majoring in Philosophy. Pichey was recently awarded a title as Collegiate Ambassador for Peace by the Universal Peace Federation. He was selected to study in the United States for a five-week program called “Study of the United States Institutes for Student Leaders”. In 2006 and 2007, he was selected out of many applicants for a leadership training program in Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. Pichey was born in a poor family in Phnom Penh and has been in pursuit of his dream for better leadership in the society. View his full biography.

Lalune Sreang

Lalune is the champion of the Youth Leadership Season 3; a program designed to promote civic education among youth, and was awarded a two-week trip to the U.S. where she met with government, political leaders and congressmen.  Grown up in Kampong Cham, Lalune is now pursuing two bachelor degrees at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the National University of Management. Lalune wants to be the best lady that people will honor and highly regard her. View her full biography.

Chansopheaktra Chhay

A student at the Royal University of Law and Economics, Sopheaktra, 20, is engaging in various activities in the country and as well as abroad. She is a part-time Program Assistant for the Youth Council of Cambodia (YCC) and she was assigned by YCC to participate in the “Asian Gale Partner Network Meeting” in Stockholm, as well as a conference on “Climate Change Youth Perspective on Security, Peace, and Democracy” in Orebro, Sweden. She was selected to study in the United States for about five weeks in a program called “Study of the United States Institutes for Student Leaders”. She used to be one of the two finalists of Youth Leadership Challenge in Season 2. Sopheaktra loves to get involved in social activities. She wants to be a diplomat who works mainly with people around the world to mobilize them to join development and peace building activities. View her full biography.

Other key members of OYG-CAM are Davy Kong, Sopheak Tuot, Norin Tauch, Longdy Yi, Bopha Pen (Board of Advisor), Dondon (Board of Advisor), and Kol Preap (Board of Advisor).

Source: Outstanding Youth Group of Cambodia

A visionary behind the scenes

From nationalist rebel to commentator with the Asian Human Rights Commission, Lao Mong Hay keeps his critical edge

On March 2, 2009, Lao Mong Hay* gave an exclusive interview with the Phnom Penh Post on his point of view over the Cambodian human rights situation and the political analysis. The interview focused on human rights situation in Cambodia today compared to the time during the 1980s when Lao served as the head of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front’s (KPNLF) Human Rights Unit. Major parts of the interview highlighted Lao’s political analysis and also the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  View the full interview>>

What is the most pressing human rights issue in Cambodia right now?

Freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means ideas, which can be critical of the government. But our rulers do not accept freedom of expression or ideas that are not compatible with their own. That’s the definition of dictatorship.

Is it dangerous for democracy that the Human Rights Party is not allowed to speak in the National Assembly?

This is part of the curb on freedom of expression. That rule is unconstitutional. The affected party and all MPs should check the Constitution and should ask the Constitutional Council to remove that clause.

How do you view the growing influence of the Chinese government in Cambodia? Will it set back human rights?

Not directly. Being a communist country whose government is not responsive to the people, we can’t expect China to do otherwise. And China is like any big power in the past. It is solely concerned with its own strategic or economic interests, and foreign aid basically serves foreign policy. Look at the American government. So long as recipient countries pursue policies in conformity with American foreign policy, they will give aid. There’s a double standard: America can support dictatorships as well as democracies.

Following your work with Yash Ghai, do you think that Cambodia can benefit from hosting a UN special rapporteur for human rights?

Cambodia can swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another, and a third party can help restrain us. We agreed already, when we signed the Paris Peace Agreements, that there should be a special rapporteur in the form of the UN representative. But through hostility towards the field office of the UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights, and through hostility to the special representative, Cambodia showed that it is not sincere in its pledges to the Paris Peace Agreements. When we pledge something in front of the international community, we should honour it.

Is the current period of CPP dominance an indication of democracy functioning successfully or a slide back into one-party rule?

The last election was a bad turn for Cambodia. Look at how the elections were controlled, right down to the grassroots. All institutions of the country are controlled by the ruling party: our King, our Constitutional Council, our courts, our parliament, our civil service, our army and police force. They should be politically neutral. To correct this flaw, we must pass a law preventing any members of these institutions from being members of any political party. And it needs to be enforced.

What do you think about the new alliance between the SRP and HRP?

I don’t think the two parties could work very well together. There are clashes of personality. There are no clear ideas or policies. This sort of alliance comes and goes, and they’ll need to work hard to consolidate their unity.

What do you think caused the royalists’ decline in politics?

Authoritarianism. When leaders are so autocratic, their subordinates lose their creativity. I have met some of them. At the beginning, they were very bright, but after one or two years there were no more ideas because they were not allowed to think. There are some princes that have continued to be in politics, for instance Sisowath Sirirath. The nation might be in crisis later on, and we might need the royalists as we did in the 1980s and 1990s. And who can be sure our ruler will not appoint his descendants, like Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have? He could become King under a new name.

How do the old political leaders – like Son Sann – compare with new leaders, like Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha?

Some of those old leaders started off with work experience as government officials and then, when the French left, they became leaders. For the time that the French had been in Cambodia, they left behind a reasonable working system of government: the basic institutions of the Cambodian state, and the rule of law. So we were more conscious about rules. Compare this to leaders now. How long was Sam Rainsy in government? Two years, and at the top. And Kem Sokha: What work experience in public administration does he have?

Recently, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has been beset by disagreements over whether prosecutions should be broadened to include other prominent KR figures.

In principle, I agree with the UN experts of the late 1990s. The creation of that court has defined one legal principle already: All those who are suspected of committing any crimes should be held accountable and should be tried. Look at the statement of our Cambodian co-prosecutor. She mentioned the political instability that might be caused by that sort of prosecution. As a prosecutor, she should not bother about that. If somebody has been accused of a crime, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure stability, not the court’s.

(* Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

Source:  The Phnom Penh Post

Who is the Cambodian ‘Rabbit Novelist’?

Pens and papers have always been her best friends in her entire life for her hand-written novels. She has enjoyed the solitude at home, composing invented stories to save the life of Khmer literature.  The characteristics of her protagonists reflect the pure Cambodian society: sympathetic, gentle, beautiful, patient, helpful and brave. Readers could relate to her stories and imagine to places which she invents in a classic way.  She is extraordinarily capable of describing a place which looks very simple to everyone as a romantic and even a mysterious scene. Her novels are full of tastes: mistake, destiny, fate, misery, struggle, failure, success, i.e. bitter sweet life.  She makes the novels into a world of romantic fantasy, and she relates readers to the earliest time and the latest.  Titles of her novels are written in a very attractive way: the ‘Black Rose’, the ‘Moon Light’, Rolok Boak Khsach (‘Wave Hits the Sand’), the ‘Moon Rises across the Border’, and the ‘Music Love of the Past’.   She has devoted her life to the Khmer literature.  Her writing is the symbol of artistic romance.  This genuine novelist is no one but Mao SamnangBy Socheata Vong


Mao Samnang (below) and two of her well-known novels (above)

Hundreds of Khmer novels sold at local news-stands throughout Cambodia were written by Mao Samnang.  This self-proclaimed “trashy novelist”, she calls herself “Rubbish Writter”, is one of the most famous authors in Cambodia.  Her protagonists are handsome strong men and beautiful swooning women, and their lives fill hugely popular Mills & Boon-style romances for just one dollar a book.

Mao, 52, leads a simple life, sitting in solitude at her desk at her home in Beak Chan (near Phnom Penh) where she lives with her two children. She works for 10 hours a day in a quiet room and always with pen in hand.  She doesn’t own a computer.  Mao has led this life for nearly 30 years discovering writing as an art-form, and as a means of income, at the age of 23. Since 1980, she has written more than 200 Khmer novels, more than 100 Khmer screenplays and a few songs and poems.

“I was a journalist for a while when my books weren’t in such demand in Cambodia during the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, but since then I have begun [writing] again and [sales] are getting better now.” Mao says

Mao’s life story is not so different from other Cambodians of the same generation. She left her studies in 1975 because of the Pol Pot regime, just as she had almost finished high school.  Her father, a teacher in Sihanoukville, was killed and then she lost her mother, leaving Mao, her sister and three brothers, orphaned.  “My family and I have survived, dependent on my career since I began writing.” she says.  When Pol Pot’s regime fell, the state nominated Mao to be a teacher at a primary school, but she soon resigned as her first book, written in 1981, was so successful Mao made more money from the writing than the teaching.  “I became a novelist by chance and only knew how to write from reading and through some experiences with my father.  When I was learning [at school], I always got good marks in Khmer literature because my father was a Khmer literature teacher who forced me to read many Khmer books.”

“I never studied at schools for writers or at any tertiary institution for that matter, but when I write, some experienced novelists consider my writing as comparable to those who did actually study their craft.”  When Mao wrote her novel in the nearly eighties there were only rudimentary machines for copying, there were no photocopiers or computers and the common currency of those times was gold.  Mao says her first novel was written by hand and purely for her own enjoyment, but quite by accident a businessman read it and was interested enough to buy the book from her. He employed students to make copies of this book, again by all hand, and began distributing it throughout Phnom Penh and several provinces for three huns (0.375 gram) of gold.  “I was really surprised at the price of the book…because three huns at that time was the same as my monthly salary, that’s what pushed me to leave my job as a teacher and become a writer.  It earned me a very good income.”

Between 1980 and 1985 Mao wrote an astonishing 120 novels of 150 pages each.  She then left the world of books for a time to concentrate on writing screenplays, of which she wrote more than 100, until the Cambodian film market collapsed in the late 1990s.  Then she worked as a journalist for the Women’s Media Center, also at the Cambodian Women’s Voice Center and at the now defunct maganize Kol Thida until 2003, when she returned to the novel, again reaping the financial rewards.

“In my life I have faced the difficulties of the Pol Pot regime.  I lost my parents and in the late 1990s and early 2000s work was scarce when Khmer movies and novels lost popularity because of growing foreign influences, especially that of Thai films.  But now I can say things are very good for me. I can earn approximately $1,000 per month.”

In the last couple of years, Mao’s workload has increased and since 2003 she has sold 10 hand-written novels and five screenplays: The Magic Forest, The Strange Resident, The Daughter of Keng Kang Snake, The Gratitude and Tom Teav – a film based on a poem of the same name about a monk leaving the monastery to marry.  “I spend a month [writing] a novel these days, but when I was young I could do it in only 10 days,” Mao says.  The most successful book that Mao has written to date is Rolok Boak Khsach (‘The Wave Hits the Sand’), which was awarded first prize in the Preah Sihanouk Reach competition in 1995.  She has also won The Garland of Jasmine and a Save the Children Norway award.  Mao says readers enjoy their novels because she always keeps her protagonists’ characteristics the same from novel to novel.  “[In] nearly all my novels, the male characters are always brave, honest, handsome, sympathetic, while the females are always gentle, patient, and beautiful.  They represent men and women in Khmer society,” she says.

These days Mao shares her expertise with the students at the Khmer Writers’ Association and in the future plans to deal directly with the printer rather than through the middleman.  Mao Samnang, the very successful Rubbish Writer, wants to be in charge of her own destiny now.

Source: The Cambodian Scene (2005, page 5 and 6)

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