The 4,040kg rice cake's role in Cambodian politics

A photo of the 4,040kg sticky-rice cake being paraded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2015.
A photo of the 4,040kg sticky-rice cake being paraded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2015. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Record-setting feats seen by govt as way to engage country's youth, say observers

PHNOM PENH • First came the 4,040kg sticky-rice cake, stuffed with mung beans and pork belly, displayed at Angkor Wat and heralded as "officially amazing" by Guinness World Records.

Then, in rapid succession, came a series of record-setting feats: the largest performance of Madison dancing, with 2,015 participants; and the world's longest scarf (1,149.8m), woven over the course of six months and paraded through the streets of Phnom Penh.

While this streak of oddball achievements might seem unconnected, they are all part of Prime Minister Hun Sen's push to get young people excited about his ageing regime.

"The government's intentions here are rather transparent: They want to create images of visible enthusiasm for the nation and its leadership," said Dr Katrin Travouillon, a scholar of Cambodian politics at Australian National University.

Crowds cheered as a representative from Guinness World Records certified that the rice cake would take its place in the record book alongside Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious structure and a source of enduring national pride.

In a triumphant speech at the event, Mr Hun Many, Mr Hun Sen's youngest and most affable son, said: "I am proud to be a child of Cambodia, and today we have achieved a giant sticky-rice cake, and the world will acknowledge that from now on."

Two-thirds of Cambodia's population is under 30, with no memory of the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule in the 1970s, or the long years of civil war that followed. Many are weary of their country's international reputation for genocide and political dysfunction.

So the country's young are less susceptible to Mr Hun Sen's traditional message that his party's leaders are national heroes, deserving perpetual legitimacy because of the role they played helping to oust the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979.

The new narrative emphasises self-sufficiency and national pride.

A critical plank of this project has been a revival of the country's youth corps, headed by Mr Hun Many. Officially, it is non-partisan; in practice, its activities support the ruling party.

At a November gathering, Mr Hun Many urged corps members to continue garnering world records.

Mr Kim Sok, a political commentator who fled the country last year after serving a jail term for criticising the Prime Minister, has spoken out against the record attempts.

"They have people, power and money, and just order the people to spend the money to get a certificate from Guinness World Records and then use this as propaganda," he said. "I think this certificate mocks the whole nation."

Although older Cambodians seemed sceptical, several young people said the world records resonated with them.

"I think it's amazing," said Ms Man Nisa, a soft-spoken 19-year-old. "I have never seen such achievements."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2019, with the headline 'The 4,040kg rice cake's role in Cambodian politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe