‘No dancing in the streets’: Why has Cambodia banned musical vehicle horns?

Authorities across Cambodia have been ordered to remove musical horns from vehicles and put a stop to roadside dancing.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet attends the 26th ASEAN-China Summit at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 6, 2023. Yasuyoshi Chiba/Pool via REUTERS
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet attends the 26th ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September, 2023 [Yasuyoshi Chiba/Pool via Reuters]

Having ruled with an iron fist for 45 years, Cambodia’s governing party leaders have a lengthy list of practices that have been banned and political opponents jailed or forced to flee the country.

Now the country’s newly-appointed Prime Minister Hun Manet, the son of Cambodia’s longtime “strong man” ruler Hun Sen, has taken aim at a new source of social unrest: musical truck horns.

In a post on social media, the 46-year-old prime minister said he was disturbed by “dancing on the street to the musical beats of big cars”, according to an unofficial translation.

Recent videos on social media, Hun Manet said, had alerted him to young people jiving on the roadside as passing trucks blasted musical tunes on their horns – and the practice must stop.

Now authorities across this country of some 17 million people have been ordered to take action and immediately remove musical horns from the nation’s vehicles.

This is what we know:

What’s Hun Manet’s issue with musical horns?

After seven months as prime minister, Hun Manet’s banning of musical vehicle horns may amount to one of his more unusual policy initiatives after succeeding his father’s 38-year tenure as prime minister.

Though Western-educated and considered the vanguard of a new, reform-orientated generation of young Cambodian leaders, Hun Manet’s first months in power have not seen him deviate much from the path set by his father.

Musical vehicle horns, and the spontaneous dancing inspired among locals, have now received the new premier’s full attention, particularly as it “affects order on the road” and poses a danger to drivers and dancers, he said.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, police at all levels, as well as local authorities, have been ordered to conduct inspections and ensure that musical horns are removed from all vehicles and replaced by standard horns that honk only.

Reports emerged on Wednesday that local authorities have ordered a ban on the sale of such horns in vehicle accessory shops.

The prime minister also instructed parents to ensure that their children “stop dancing in the street”.

Cambodia’s pro-government Khmer Times newspaper said the premier was motivated to act due to the potential “harm to children” caused by dancing to the “horn sound” of trucks.

While dancing on the edge of a road might be risky, young Cambodians seem to find it much fun.

One video shared on Facebook features a young Cambodian woman awaiting the arrival of a large transport truck. As the truck draws near, the driver honks out a techno dance beat that the young woman giggles and bops along to on the roadside.

FILE PHOTO: This combination photo shows Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet during election campaign rallies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 1, 2023 and July 21, 2023 respectively. REUTERS/Cindy Liu/File Photo
A combination photo shows former Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and his son and current prime minister, Hun Manet, during election campaign rallies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2023 [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Cambodian culture wars?

A commentator on political issues in Cambodia noted that the ban on musical horns and street dancing appeared to be “more posturing than policy”, adding that the new prime minister’s administration has “not been shy about ‘culture war’ issues”.

Why the new prime minister was bothering with such a “trivial” matter was a question raised by a Cambodian taxi driver who spoke to Al Jazeera.

“The prime minister’s job is to be the prime minister. Why has he stepped into such a tiny thing as this?” asked the driver, who requested anonymity due to security concerns over being seen as critical of the new prime minister.

Yet, in doing so, Hun Manet is only following in the footsteps of his father.

What was Hun Sen’s track record on culture?

Leveraging cultural issues to advance a conservative view of Cambodian society was also a feature of Hun Sen’s time as prime minister.

In 2020, Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Interior to take legal action against female social media influencers who wore revealing outfits to advertise and sell products online.

Prosecution was necessary, Hun Sen said, as social media videos and images featuring revealing clothes “negatively affects the honour of Cambodian women”.

Responding to criticism of his ban on Cambodian women wearing short skirts in their social media posts, Hun Sen said: “When I appeal to them not to wear sexy clothes online, they accuse me of breaking human rights”.

In 2006, Hun Sen banned beauty pageants in Cambodia saying the country preferred to alleviate poverty than promote beauty.

“We can’t take one beautiful lady to participate in the contest and claim it is our national identity and then have them wear their underpants,” Hun Sen said at the time, in an apparent reference to contestants posing in swimming suits at pageants.

Nat Rern of Cambodia competes in the swimsuit competition during the 2018 Miss Universe pageant in Bangkok on December 13, 2018. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)
Nat Rern of Cambodia competes in the swimsuit competition during the 2018 Miss Universe pageant in Bangkok on December 13, 2018 [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera