Controversy over the Rock Opera

Where Elephants WeepWhen writing up my last post, I forgot to check with Cambodge Soir. As I read there today, I found out that the rock opera Where Elephants Weep has not been banned outright, as is also reported in a (translated) piece on KI Media. I found the Cambodge Soir report particularly insightful, relating who exactly said what and also including the views of the monk, the government and the opera representatives. You can read the original report in French by Ung Chansophea and Alain Ney on Cambodge Soir. My translation is below.

I must ask for forgiveness in advance. My translation from French is as bad (and liberal) as it is from Khmer. I hope that you can at least walk away from this with an understanding that there is a more complex story behind a headline as simple as “Monks Force Rock Opera Off Air.”

A monk calls for a ban on the distribution of the TV show and demands public apologies from the writers and actors.

The Supreme Patriarch Non Gneth got hot under the collar while watching the rock opera “Where Elephants Weep” this past December 25 on the CTN television channel. He made it known in a message addressed December 30 to the Ministry of Cults and Religions, which he forwarded to the Ministries of Culture and of Information. According to him, this work touches “on religious precepts” because the actors that play the roles of monks singing and dancing are a little too “delinquent” for his taste. Other grounds for this monk’s wrath include the words uttered by one of the characters, “a monk wants a woman,” and the fact that a monk had watched a woman from a hiding place. Accordingly, he calls simply and purely for a total ban on its broadcast and asks the actors who play the roles of monks and the opera producers to offer public apologies.

From the Ministry of Culture’s office, one source points to a possible “confusion,” saying more specifically “that no decision has yet been made.” Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information, has for his part asked his counterpart in the Ministry of Culture not to ban future performances of the opera, but only its broadcasting on Cambodian television. The minister, who sees no need to be too “purist,” believes that through this show “the quality of Khmer art will be recognized” overseas.

In response to this controversy, the musical composer of “Where Elephants Weep,” Him Sophy, himself Buddhist, would like all to understand that this opera completely serves Buddhism, because if the characters of the monks run into trouble, it’s because they didn’t listen to their temple abbot. And to wonder, “if you say that this opera is against Buddhism, then why not say that the local newspapers that publish articles about monks who rape women are also against Buddhism?”

So I was pretty happy to read this article. No doubt, I was both disappointed that the New Year’s Day broadcast was cancelled, and also that the head of the Cambodian Sangha could have such a powerful and immediate effect in the public sphere. Following mixed slew of comments on the Cambodian blogosphere, I also got the uncomfortable feeling that a ban would have a significant public backing.

I think this show is great. I can’t wait till it comes back to the United States, and when it does I will be the first to buy a ticket to see it. While I’m still disappointed that television broadcasts of the show have been for now banned, I’m at least glad to know that the Cambodian government recognizes the show’s cultural value. Whew!

2 Replies to “Controversy over the Rock Opera”

  1. Censorship is not only wrong but un-Buddhist. Buddhism is a very tolerant religion, any criticism but be taken as constructive criticism. The Buddhist Sangha in Cambodia must look at themselves and stand to correct the wrongs.

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