Chhorn Chansy is a child of the ’80s—not the American ’80s but the Cambodian ’80s, which means his nostalgia is not for hair rock and acid-washed jeans, but for the days when the whole village would crowd around a single radio to listen to whatever broadcasts they could pick up.
At the time, Cambodia was a single-party communist state ruled by a secretive and insular Vietnam-backed government. News might as well not have existed for his family or their neighbors. Picking up foreign programs would have been nearly impossible, even if it weren’t illegal. When they managed to get a spot around the radio, they listened to the warble and drone of the ancient chapei guitar or the voice of Sin Sisamouth, the honey-voiced ’60s crooner, singing Chansy’s favorite song, “Morning Star”: “Oh, the night, the deep, dark night. How lonely I am.”
His parents grew rice; his parents’ parents grew rice. Nobody could remember not growing rice. Almost as soon as he could walk, Chansy was sent out to keep the family cows from nipping at the fringes of rice paddies. His family thought he was an exceptionally bright child because he could herd six cows at once. To get him an education and a chance at a better life, they sent him away to live at an orphanage.
Today Chansy is 34 and one of the best journalists in Cambodia, where he has spent much of the past decade as an editor at The Cambodia Daily, parlaying his talent for herding cows into a position managing the paper’s 14 reporters. But he lost that job two weeks ago when the Cambodian government imposed a draconian $6.3 million tax bill on the newspaper and shut it down, as part of an abrupt crackdown on free expression and political dissent that has left many here deeply shaken. Chansy suddenly has lots of time to think about the past and the future, which are both starting to seem empty. “I’m not sure what I should do. I’m concerned about what’s happening to press freedom in Cambodia,” he said. “I’m concerned that there is only one voice, one side, like how in the past we only had an AM [radio] channel. I am concerned that will happen again.”
Sitting in a café along Phnom Penh’s riverfront last week, wearing the dazed but slightly frantic expression of the freshly unemployed, he kept reflexively checking his phone, where news alerts and story tips from sources were still flooding in. He was full of ideas for articles that needed to be written, but had no place to put them—a torment for a journalist. He said what he most remembered from his 1980s childhood was how quiet everything was, how empty of anything except the rhythm of the growing season and the quest to keep surviving. “Back then,” he said, “we didn’t know how big the world was.”