Flowers in the Forest: A Talk with Chheng Phon, Minister of Information. and Culture
This interview was conducted in December 1989 by a group of 11 Southeast Asian journalists visiting Cambodia on a tour sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and hosted by the Association of Cambodian Journalists. Evans Young Quaker international affairs representative for the AFSC from 1986 to 1989, edited this interview.
Now in his sixties, Chheng Phon has been described as a "visionary of formidable knowledge, dedication, and energy" who has devoted a lifetime to preserving and nurturing Cambodian culture.
In the 1960s, as head of the National Conservatory, he labored to save the art of Cambodian puppet theater by encouraging performers and collecting musical scores. In the 1970s, as the country became engulfed by the war in Indochina, he started a performing arts "farm" outside of Phnom Penh to train students from the University of Fine Arts in traditional dance drama while they raised vegetables, chickens, and pigs.
As Cambodia's minister of information and culture, his task has been to piece together the shards of a culture shattered by war and by the horrors of the Pol Pot era. His comments in Khmer and French were translated into English by a longtime aide and fellow artist accustomed to his vivid imagery and rapid, intellectually teasing, and enchanting way of speaking.
C.P.: In the thirteenth century, when Cambodian culture was at its height during the reign of Jayavar-man VII, there were some 385,737 scholars in Cambodia. In 1979, after Pol Pot's reign of terror, we returned to find there were only 300 scholars alive. From this, we can see the loss of the "gray matter" - our intellects - in Cambodia under Pol Pot.
There were 6,465 sculptures in the Angkor period; now only four or five remain - all the rest were destroyed. There were 1,622 apsara dancers; now fewer than 10 teachers of apsara are alive, and they are in their sixties and seventies.
Pol Pot wanted to destroy everything associated with culture. He wanted to annihilate all things belonging to the past and start entirely new. Therefore, he destroyed our culture atom by atom. He wanted people to cut off all their memories of the past. The Khmer Rouge aimed at the atomization of families, cutting children off from their parents, saying that they belonged to the "organization" - Angka - and filling them up with new conceptions. But we, that children of Cambodia, how do we feel if we have no parents?
You may ask about the "Vietnamization" of Cambodian culture. Who can replace a culture? Our Vietnamese friends are afraid to do anything against Cambodian culture. We can help each other in the lower strata of culture, in technical matters and mass communications, but not in the upper levels. We and the Vietnamese agree: You can force me to eat rice, but you cannot force me to think anything you want. A tank may be able to run over the body, but it cannot destroy the spirit of a people. This shows the deep understanding between Vietnamese and Cambodians in the cultural sphere.
No nation can understand fully the traditions and culture of a country other than the people of the country itself. We, for example, are very close to the Lao, but we cannot say that we understand Lao culture very well. This is because my eyes, nose, body, and mind are different. Cultural domination is not possible. It can only be done for a short time, because culture is the spirit of the nation. A culture is not a robot to be controlled by the push of a button.
We follow this principle within Cambodia. Even though an ethnic minority may have only 30 families, we still try to preserve its culture. We say it is like a flower in the forest. A garden with only one kind of flower or only flowers of one color is no good. The three ministers of culture in Indochina are trying to develop the varied cultures of our countries. We are trying to find the flowers hidden in the forest, and preserve them there.
The repair of a culture is very difficult. We think it will take at least 10 years to reconstruct our culture. If the war ends sooner, we can repair to sooner. Every year of war takes five years for reconstruction. If the war continues, how can we every keep up with the modern world?
We know Pol Pot very well. You journalists from Asian countries have heard of our sufferings, and now you have seen them. As for me, I have undergone the suffering myself. I am a writer, and yet I cannot the suffering myself. I am a writer, and yet I cannot find words to describe the Pol Pot regime. I saw Pol Pot's men kill eight children in front of their mothers, and then kill the mothers themselves. Seeing this, I nearly had a heart attack.
Many of our scholars were deceived by Pol Pot. After 1975, they returned to Cambodia, were put into prison, and were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Deception like this works only once. You can ask people here how much they are still terrified by Pol Pot.
Can we keep out happy smile? This is the question we ask ourselves. How can we end the war in Cambodia?
Question: How do you think tourism will affect Cambodian culture?
C.P.: During the Lon Nol period, eight American economists came to look at the future of Cambodia's economy. They said if we develop a tourism industry, we could bring in million. As for me, I am interested in the development of the arts and culture. I am pleased that tourists want to come to see our country, but I worry about the destruction of cultural sites.
For example, in Siem Reap, I have an idea to preserve the authentic site of the Angkor monuments. I say, "The Flowers should be accompanied by the leaves. If a flower is put in an ashtray, id doesn't look good." Therefore, we want to preserve the site, and raise the standard of the town.
To build a five-star hotel near the monuments would be to destroy the monuments. My idea is for small guesthouses and hotels and to use only horse-drawn carts as taxis. Modern towns can be built, but they should be 50 km away from the monuments. The vibrations from jet airplanes are also a problem: they shake the foundations of the monuments. We should take this into account, too.
What should every Cambodians child know about Cambodian culture?
If you do not know your culture, you cannot bring something new to the culture. People are the masters and the products of their history. Anything made in the twelfth century has its value in the twelfth century, and yet the past has value for the present.
For example, you know our classical apsara dance. Why are sculptures of apsara dancers always at the top of monuments and sculptures of kings at the bottom? Because the apsaras are the symbol of the surety of a life free from anxiety. They represent people trying find this surety for others.
What is the Ministry of Information and Culture doing to preserve cultural monuments?
We are trying to preserve all the monuments in Cambodia. We have appealed to the world to help us restore them, but it takes time - up to 20 years for each one - and money. In some Reap alone, there are each one - and money. In Siem Reap alone, there are 292 monuments in need of restoration.
In the whole of Cambodia there are more than 20,000 priceless art objects which are broken and in need of restoration. Once, I invited the Czech minister of culture to come visit the hospital to see my patients. He was confused. He said, "I am a man of culture, not a doctor. Why take me to your hospital?" My answer was that my patients are all these objects of art, these crying, broken stones. In fact, In invited him to visit one of the warehouses where these artifacts are stored.
I have a vision. It is of an apsara with all its limbs and its head cut off. It is flying in the sky, away from me, and I do not know when or how I can put it back together again.
This year, I told the classical ballet to revive all 18 forms of the ballet. I also have an idea to create museums for cultural preservation in situ, among the people. We should not take culture away from the people and put it into museums. A cultural tradition, after all, is a tradition of creation.
How do you feel about video, kung fu movies, and other popular entertainments?
There are many shops in the city selling food to fill you up, but some are not clean. There are many actors and shows in Phnom Penh, but the plays are not very good.
Video is the ungrateful child who killed the play. Actors are the father of cinema and cinema is the father of video. The children have killed their fathers.
Out task is to write in a way that produces in-telligence in people's minds. If the food in a shop is not bought, you do not blame the buyers. Instead, look at whether the cook is good or not. Writers should look at the effect of their writing in producing a culture of intelligence.
Out world is in a moral crisis. The question is, How does culture help the moral intellect of the world? We want to serve the interests of a universal, regional, and national aesthetic in our cultural work.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.