Socheata Vong

My thoughts about beloved Cambodia

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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-sonang2

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)

Survey of Cambodian Public Opinion

A Cambodian post election poll was conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in November 2008 to obtain primary data on the thoughts and opinions of the Cambodian citizenry concerning current political, social and economic issues. The poll was released on February 17, 2009. Find out how our Cambodians responded to the country’s direction. View the Poll slides >>

A few poll highlights by topic:

Is the Country Moving in the Right/Wrong Direction?

  • 82% of Cambodians see their country as moving in the right direction, mainly because of the infrastructure they see being built, including roads, schools, health clinics, pagodas etc.
  • 17% see the country as moving in the wrong direction, citing the corruption, price of goods, and poverty as the greatest hindrance to their country’s future.

What three issues or concerns do you feel most impact Cambodia as a country?

  • 59% of Cambodians said border issues and demarcation as the most concern followed by the prices of goods. (Compared to August 2007 poll, only 5% concerned about border issue – mainly Vietnamese border).

What differences do you see between the major parties that competed in National Assembly elections?

  • More than half of the population see no differences (33%) or don’t know the differences (22%). 17% see the differences in power, size, and influence. However, only 4% responded that the differences are the issues political parties talk about

Did you vote during National Assembly elections in July?

  • 88% of the respondents said they voted (NEC result is 82%)
  • 36% of the respondents who did not vote said their names were not on the voter list.

Which one of these has the stronger influence in your daily life?

  • Village chief (41%), Prime Minister (28%), Commune Council (14%), National Assembly (5%)

Source: IRI

Government Should Refute, Not Deny Accusations

Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Global Witness’s 95-page report, “Cambodia’s Family Trees: illegal logging and the stripping of public assets,” has raised grave concern about deforestation of catastrophic proportions.

I am in no position to question the report’s accuracy or to judge the government’s denial of involvement in logging scandals. However, I think the government should produce any evidence it has to counter Global Witness’s allegations and to prove its innocence, especially if it is confident, as one Forestry Administration official said, that “Global Witness lied on every page.” (Global Witness Decries Report Ban; Probe Ordered,” June 5, page 1).

Producing such evidence would encourage more accountability and transparency.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

We Must Keep Truth About KR Atrocities Alive

Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Friday, May 11, 2007

I am shocked by reports that some young people do not believe that starvation, torture and mass killings really happened under the Khmer Rouge.

There are several reasons why this is missing from our young people’s minds. First, parents tend to take for granted their responsibility to refresh the memory of this holocaust. Perhaps they feel people’s lives are much better now and that the past should be left behind.

Second, our government has failed to adequately educate students about the regime. Third, many of us as victims are still struggling to understand the reasons behind the Khmer Rouge’s actions. Without this understanding, we have less to share. Finally, young people seem not recognize the importance of our history.

It is our shared responsibility to keep alive the truth about the Khmer Rouge to ensure a better, safer future. The new textbook on the regime published by Khamboly Dy is a great achievement. I implore people to pay serious attention to it.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

Hun Sen’s War on Land Grabbers Will Benefit Poor, Restore Trust

Hun Sen’s War on Land Grabbers Will Benefit Poor, Restore Trust
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Thursday, March 8, 2007

I welcome Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen’s very proactive stance in resolving the notorious land grabbing controversy, (“This is War, Hun Sen Tells Land Grabbers,” Tuesday, page 1).

Firing a general would certainly constitute an effective response to our current situation and would send a clear warning to other land grabbers. Such a measure will be triumphantly celebrated once it has been carried out. I really hope that the public will have access to information about such firings.

I strongly appeal to Hun Sen and the influential CPP Central Committee to take firm measures against affluent and powerful individuals who have abused the poor by grabbing their land. This would have restore poverty, as it is outlined in the government’s agenda.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

Government at Fault for Low Graft Index Ranking

Government at Fault for Low Graft Index Ranking
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

That Cambodia ranked 151st out of 163 countries in Transparency International’s global perceptions of corruption index was very sad but unsurprising news to me, “Cambodia Falls Near Bottom of Graft Index,” (Wednesday, page 1.)

The Cambodian government may have reason to be skeptical of this report. However, I completely disagree with government officials who downplayed this assessment when our credibility and image in the international arena are at stake.

Instead of claiming that the index is politically biased, our government should attribute this finding to its own failure and lack of political will to curb corruption.

Cambodia should be more cautious of how it is viewed by the outside world. Needless to say, corruption will be factored in to foreign decisions to invest on our soil. In this way, corruption affects the Cambodian people and everyone pays.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

Bar Association Plays a Crucial Role, Needs to Act Responsibly

Bar Association Plays a Crucial Role, Needs to Act Responsibly
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

I am profoundly frustrated that the bar association dispute has dragged on for almost two years, solely orchestrated by a few obsessively power-oriented and highly politicized people.

It is a crying shame that political convenience and gain have been attempted instead of a solution to the conflict.

In a system with a corrupt judiciary, the legal profession is one of the most important means in preserving justice.

The bar’s leadership has a crucial role to sustain this.
The bar’s credibility has been eroded in the eyes of its members, donors and, above all, in the eyes of the Cambodian population.

[Everyday that the dispute continues, my utmost sympathy goes out to Cambodians who are helplessly facing injustice in a very corrupt system, while the bar is being severely undermined.]

Everyday that the dispute continues, my utmost sympathy goes out to Cambodians who are helplessly facing injustice in a very corrupt system, while the bar is being severely undermined.

The bar’s leaders should learn to be more responsible toward their members and the Cambodian public before they decide to do battle over a position they not even deserve.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

When Parliamentarians Restrict Speech, a Country Is Diminished

When Parliamentarians Restrict Speech, a Country Is Diminished
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Friday, September 1, 2006

It is a sad irony that Cambodia, while proclaiming to be a democracy, has taken a move backward by hurting freedom of expression, one of the most fundamental rights for a democratic society (“Legislators Vote to Limit Their Own Speech,” Thursday, page 1)

I was shocked that our lawmakers, the so-called people’s representatives, who were elected by the people to speak for them, have chosen to abandon their mission by adopting a law to criminalize parliamentarians’ voices.

Shamefully, while the voices in parliament are silenced, Cambodians’ endeavors to make their voices heard, to contribute to development and to improve the nation through their elected representatives will be in vain.

Are we going back to the stage when we will all have to remain silent? When this core value of free expression is threatened, the country itself is diminished.

[Cambodian leaders should embrace criticism.]

Cambodian leaders should embrace criticism and be more responsible with every single decision they make.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

KR Officials’ Health Should Be Monitored

KR Officials’ Health Should Be Monitored
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Thursday, July 13, 2006

While the approaching Khmer Rouge tribunal has inspired a great sense of justice, the deteriorating health of former rebel commander Ta Mok has prompted grave concerns that his death will prevent him from standing trial.

In the long wait for the trial, some of the regime’s top officials have died: Pol Pot in 1998 and most recently former KR Health Minister Thiounn Thioeun in June.

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and Brother Number Two Nuon Chea are also aging. I strongly appeal to the tribunal and the public to pay close attention to their health.

I strongly hope that justice will be served for the 1.7 million people who were brutally killed and for survivors who are haunted by the nightmares of Cambodia’s most notorious chapter in history.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

Cambodian Government Must Not Ignore the Khmer Krom

Cambodian Government Must Not Ignore the Khmer Krom
Letter to the Editor
The Cambodia Daily
Thursday, June 8, 2006

I was greatly saddened by a comment made by a government official in the story “Khmer Krom Mark 57 Years Since VN Handover”(Monday, page 11).
More than 3,000 people turned out to mark the 57th anniversary of the 1949 loss of Kampuchea Krom.

The commemoration inspired great hope and dreams, but I was shocked and almost burst into tears by the comments of one government official who said that the rally and the expressed demands “will make the Vietnamese government put further pressure on Khmer Kampuchea Krom.”

I am not sure of the meaning of this comment and whether it was intended to discourage any demands by the Khmer Krom community or does it mean that any activity including this peaceful assembly will result in further pressure from Hanoi?

I should take this time to reflect on the fact that many monks and ordinary people have been physically and mentally persecuted and ill-treated by the Vietnamese authority, which prompted many of them to flee to Cambodia.
Here they hoped they would be recognized as Khmer, but unfortunately they have been denied.

[While I feel great pain over the historical loss of Khmer Kampuchea Krom territory…I am even more saddened by our current government ignoring the situation.]

While I feel great pain over the historical loss of Khmer Kampuchea Krom territory, which was conceded to Vietnam by colonial France, I am even more saddened by our current government ignoring the situation.

It is indeed a very sad irony that the government is very inactive in resolving this controversy while it is as the same time proactive in discouraging Khmer Krom, whose very blood they share, from exercising their rights.

Vong Socheata,
Phnom Penh

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