Now, a brash new rap album is breaking the taboos by telling young Cambodians about the darkest chapter of their country's history.
At parties, in bars and in homes around Phnom Penh, the album has teen-agers buzzing about songs on death, forced labor and broken families.
"The End'n is Jus The Beginnin" - written by a Cambodian-American - reflects on the years in the 1970s when 1.7 million people died in the communist Khmer Rouge's attempt to turn Cambodia into a large agrarian commune.
The 17-song album was recorded in a garage in Long Beach, Calif., by Prach Ly, a 21-year-old who has never returned to Cambodia since emigrating to the United States in 1983, at the age of 4.
He said he never envisioned the music having an impact in Cambodia.
"I was very surprised at how big this got. When I did it, it was just a demo, to pass around to a few friends," Prach Ly said in a telephone interview from Long Beach.
"The lyrics, the message had been inside me a long time and I wanted to release it," he said, adding that he is hoping a record company will help him record the songs in a studio.
Three of the songs are in the Khmer language and the rest are in English interspersed with Khmer (pronounced Kh-maai).
"When I first heard this it was, 'Wow! This is exciting,"' said Nguon Phan Sophea, 24, who owns the Galaxy CD shop in Phnom Penh. He said he heard the CD last year at the home of a friend who had bought it in Long Beach, where many Cambodian immigrants live.
He borrowed the CD, made 50 copies, designed a yellow-and-green CD cover, called it "Cambodian Rap" and put the discs up for sale for $2 in his shop.
There are no laws protecting intellectual property rights in Cambodia and virtually all of the music sold here is pirated.
Nguon said he has sold nearly 300 copies of the CD and let Cambodia's largest music store, CD World, burn copies from his. CD World has sold more than 400 copies, store manager Chy Sila said.
The album has caught on among the trendy urban youth of the capital, who often have access to MTV and English-language lessons.
One verse in the Khmer language song "Born" says: "Power, property, girls, money. What's the use of them, if relatives, children, spouses, families are split up..."
The English-language track "In 1975" goes: "Families separated by sex and ages; We worked for food, and got kinda hazy; Put us in camp that we called the cages."
"I remember they shot him, shot point blank in front of his children ... I can't maintain. I'm going insane. Hell on earth, it can't get any worse."
The Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979 after a four-year rule.
Sociologists attribute many Cambodians' reluctance to dwell on those years to the Cambodian Buddhist philosphy of forgetting and forgiving.
During its rule, the Khmer Rouge banned all art, literature and music that did not praise the communist party and its leader, Pol Pot. Most performing artists, painters, doctors, lawyers and teachers were killed. People who wore glasses were identified as intellectuals and executed.
"They said intellectual people were not needed in the field ... books burned, schools turned into barns," say the lyrics of "In 1975."
Creativity was so systematically crushed that even 25 years later, little new work is produced. Recording companies recycle old love songs. Literature and filmmaking are nonexistent. Art consists mainly of generic, commercial paintings of Angkor temples and
"apsaras," or celestial dancers.
Sophoann Sope Hul, 37, one of Cambodia's best-known disc jockeys, said a "deep fear" inhibits self-expression.
"Everyone wants to express themselves like these guys (Prach Ly and his band), but they're afraid," he said. "In Cambodia, no one would dare say what those guys say. It's inspirational."
"These songs are a step forward," he said.
Some people hope that Prach Ly's music will kick-start the creativity of a numb nation. A 23-year-old disc jockey known as NCK said he and his friends want to produce similar rap.
"We want to bring it to the new generation, and talk about reality, talk about society," he said.
By Chris Decherd
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