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Preserving a Cultural Tradition: Ten Years After the Khmer Rouge

For a decade and a half now, Cambodia has been in a state of warfare and instability. Control over Cambodia's politics has changed hands form monarchy to republic to communism. The years 1985-1979, when the country was in the grip of the Khmer Rouge, mark the most destructive and lethal period of Khmer history. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, destroyed not only Khmer lives, health, mentality, morality, education, and physical materials, but also culture and civilization.

The Khmer Rouge atrocities and the unbearable living conditions in Cambodia forced thousands of Khmer refugees top flee the country and seek refuge in camps along the Khmer-Thai border and in other countries: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States. Students like myself, who left the country before 1975, could not return to Cambodia for fear of the inhumane torture and killing, the haunted prison (a former school) of Tuol Sleng and the mass grave of Choeung Ek. Consequently I have lived outside of Cambodia for the past 16 years.

This past summer I was able to join the Social Science Research Council's delegation under the Indochina Scholarly Exchange Program to visit my homeland to see the few family members who are left from the Khmer Rouge's massacres, to meet old teachers and friends, and to observe and reaffirm my awareness of the events in Cambodia today, about which we know so little, particularly vis-à-vis the fate of Khmer culture.

Going to Cambodia at this moment, in the eyes of expatriate Khmer politicians, is perceived as supporting the current regime, as allowing oneself to be used by the government. On the other hand, artists, myself included, are caught between two conflicting loyalties: political and artistic. If not going to Cambodia would indeed help the country to achieve peace and freedom, then artists should not return at this point. But we must also care for our fellow artists. Many of them have died; the surviving ones need our help. We must make a choice. Politicians do not have to make this choice: there is only one way for them, and that is political, not humanitarian. One of the most famous lines for politicians is, "Yours country first! A citizen must give up everything for his country." What good is that if the country has no people? Or should there be a compromise? Shall the two - the country and its people - go together? This unresolved question continues to stir my consciousness.

The Growth of Khmer Arts

Khmer arts can be classified into several categories according to their development and practice: birth and growth (Founan-Chenla period), peak and flourishment (Angkor period), decline and darkness (Lungvek period), renaissance and revival (Oudong period), conservation and preservation (first three-quarters of the Chaktomouk period), and destruction and second revival (last quarter of the Chaktomouk period).

The monarchy, which ruled Cambodia from 1953 to 1970, was once considered to be the kos santipheap ("peaceful island"). The royal families strongly supported and parted and patronized the arts. Queen Kossamak Neary the owner and teacher of the royal dance troupe. Princess Norodom Bopha Devi and Prince Norodom Chakrapong (Sihanouk's children) both were dancers in the palace. Even the prince himself was an artist in his own right - a musician and actor.

Although some political overtones were apparent during this time, Khmer artists enjoyed and practiced their artistic creativity for the sake of tradition, ceremony, and recreation. The old art forms that had been gracefully practiced during the Oudong period had been carried over to the Chaktomouk period and preserved closely under the watchful eyes of our elders and master artists.

What took place during the republic, as far as the arts were concerned, was merely the echo of the previous regime. The regime that followed is generally described by Khmers as "the living hell on earth." When the Khmer Rouge took over the country on 17 April 1975, it immediately turned heaven into hell by applying its radical policies: evacuating people, emptying the cities, and forcing people to perform hard labor, particularly the city dweller and intellectuals.

This genocidal regime of Pol Pot (1975-1979) claimed millions of Khmer lives, including those of artists, musicians, and dancers. In 1979, wrote the Kampuchea Review (1982_, "Out of 190 ballet artists, only 40 escaped death under the Pol pot-Ieng Sary regime." Three years later, after accepting the position of minister of information and culture, Chheng Peon announced: "The genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-Khieu Samphan regime destroyed our national culture almost completely and killed almost 80 percent of our male and female performers" (Kampuchea Review [1982]). In a similar account, Clayton Jones (1987) wrote: "Some 90 percent of classical dancers tried to wipe out the country's traditional culture." Recently a team of journalists visiting Cambodia met Chheng Phon, whose statement was quoted by Susan Pack (1989): "We have 10 percent of teachers or professors after the destruction. Ninety percent were gone. There were 380,000 artists and intellectuals; during Pol Pot just 300 people survived."

Some arts were performed, but solely as propaganda for the communist party. The texts, highlighting the peasant class, were written and interpreted. Acting was minimal. Mass productions could sometimes be observed. The University of Fine Arts (the only arts university in Cambodia) was closed. There was no formal schooling in art and artistry; what became important was the political message, not the art form. There were no professional artists, no freedom of creativity. Art was purely political and revolutionary.

In the Khmer Rouge massacres some 90 percent of Khmer artists were killed, claimed Chheng Phon during our meeting at the Ministry of Information and Culture in Phnom Penh in May 1989. He also expressed his sadness over the great loss of Khmer culture during the Khmer Rough period. He said that only about 10 percent of the approximately 3,000 members of the Khmer Association of Artists in 1975 remained in the country after 1979. Once needs to understand the past and the present in order to see the future; we declined from high civilization to virtually nothing today.

Restoring Culture

The 1980s represent the second revival period (after Oudong), although it is very difficult to revive a cultural heritage of 1,000 years with so few people. The very few remaining artists regrouped and restored themselves and came back to reestablish the University of Fine1 and the Department of Art.2 "The restoration of culture is the soul of the people. It is as important to maintain and develop culture as it is to promote economic development." Among the hundreds and thousands of slogans on banners and fences along the roads, government offices, and commercial buildings, one says, "Culture is the soul of a nation. Without the culture there is no nation."

Bringing culture to the public is also one of the main tasks of the Ministry of information and Culture. Chheng Phon says that culture brings people closer together. In this respect, there has been much more public involvement in the arts and cultural performances than before 1975. The number of theaters in Phnom Penh has increased from three to fifteen. There are 354 theaters in 10 provinces, and 250 theater groups in the country. The University of Fine Arts and the Department of Arts hold an average of 20 performances per month. Performing tours have been organized to take artistic productions to villages (where permitted) across the country. Performances are very popular; one show in the provinces was attended by 800 people.

The Ministry of Information and Culture has also been able to organize a yearly festival in Phnom Penh, bringing together performing troupes from all over the country. The university and the Department of Arts regularly send performing troupes to participate in various international festivals and conferences abroad, particularly in the socialist bloc. In regard to the rapid development of traditional Khmer culture at this juncture, Chheng Phon gave us an analogy: "We have many good seeds and they are sat upon by rocks [referring to the oppression of the Khmer Rouge]. Once the rocks are removed, the seeds then grow immeasurably."

Two different situations can be observed at this point: the quantity of artists and the quality of arts. Compared to the prewar era, the number of students at the University of Fine Arts is booming, mainly due to the living conditions there: students get free room and board, subsidized in part by the government.3

At the same time, however, there is a generation gap. The University of Fine Arts, for instance, only has thirteen court dance teachers (three of them teach the monkey roles), four folk dance teachers, and five music teachers. Before 1975, the Faculty of Choreographic Arts had nine master musicians; only three survived the holocaust. Those artists who died during the Pol Pot years include both teachers and students-artists of great skill and talent. Chheng Phon has also accepted that the quality of students is not high: "We experience the decline in quality. The country's culture suffers tremendously as the result of the devastating blow of the Khmer Rouge. The performance quality cannot be comparable to that of the prewar years, because most of the masters have died and it will take us years to retrain the new recruits."

It is crucial for Cambodia to develop cultural institutions. The University of Fine Arts at the moment undertakes documentation, audio and visual recording, and publishing. More than 1,000 pieces of traditional music have been documented. Sixty recitational styles of traditional poems have been preserved. One hundred and two theatrical pieces have been created and staged. A few artists have put great efforts into writing, composing, and compiling materials related to Khmer arts. Through the Ministry of Information and Culture's publishing house and bookstore, several audio cassettes of various genres of Khmer music, songs, poems, and theatrics have been produced, distributed, and sold to the general public.

But the development of the university is seriously hampered by the lack of trained personnel, documents, material support, and low level of support for faculty members, who then experience difficulties in everyday life. The University of Fine Arts possesses a few old, traditional musical instruments. Asked why it does not buy musical instruments from outside, as Thailand does William Lobban says, "Why should we give the money to Thais and not Khmers? We have located Khmer instrument makers. We are building a workshop for instrument making and it is almost finished. Once the building is finished, we will begin making our own instruments." (For more on traditional instruments, see pp. 46-48.)

The question of livelihood - survival versus professional career - also arises. Artists are forced to take a second and sometimes a third job in order to make ends meet. Some sell bread; some ice; others till the soil, planting vegetables to sell in the market. Many have left the university for jobs outside of the arts.

Culture and Politics

In the midst of this struggle to survive, maintain, and preserve Khmer culture, Khmer artists have also faced "Vietnamization." The Vietnamese have sent teachers and experts to teach and work with Khmer, including those artists of the University of Fine Arts. They have tried to impose their models on Khmers, such as the wearing of shoes and sandals on stage, using piano for dance accompaniment, new modes of plucking stringed instruments, and so on. Khmer artists and musicians successfully have refused, resisted, and rejected these impositions (see Martin 1986; Sam 1988).

Chheng Phon says, "We told the Vietnamese that you can teach us to cook, but do not cook for us, because you do not know out taste." He emphatically assures us that Khmer culture has not been Vietnamized. This is impossible, he notes, since the two cultures are like oil and water. Worst of all, in the early 1980s, as testified by some teachers, the Vietnamese proposed to ban Khmer court dance because the Vietnamese thought that is no longer suited and served the country's new political thrust. This was a shock. Chea Samy, a dance teacher at the University of Fine Arts, protested by saying, "To ban our culture is to destroy Angkor Wat."

In short, although little attention is paid to the arts, artists still fall victim to politics. The social and cultural changes discussed here are the result and reflection of political shifts and chaos in Cambodia since 1975, over which artists have no control. During our last meeting before we left Cambodia, Chheng Phon sadly urged that we, artists, try to reconcile and heal the wounds caused by others. We have lost so much: our most skillful and talented artists, who had spent all their lives to arrive at where they were.

Should artists remain outside, fold their arms, and watch their fellow artists in Cambodia die one by one? When will the superpowers stop tracing boundaries and sharing territories of the helpless and instead help bring peace to the world? When will our leaders prioritize Cambodia's issues - national reconciliation, independence, peace, and freedom - and come together on good terms to bring this hope and dream to their country first," they seem to go in a different direction, They, first, should serve as the role models for there Khmers to follow. The fate of Khmer culture depends heavily upon the political situation. There are still rich cultural resources in Cambodia today: the living dance and music masters, the "walking dictionaries." But it is so unfortunate., particularly for the Khmers living abroad, that they will either not have access or will have to take risks to return to their homeland.


1. When the University of Fine Arts was first reopened on 27 January 1981, it was called the School of Fine Arts. The university was officially reaccredited as a legitimate institution in November 1988 (Keo Malis, personal communication, 1989).

2. The present Department of Arts has the same functions as those of the former Conservatory of Performing Arts.

3. Each school year the Faculty of Choreographic Arts recruits about 40 or 50 new students (Keo Malis, personal communication, 1989).


Kampuchea Review

1979 Phnom Penh Reports Membership of New KNUFNS Central Committee. Kampuchea Review IV (30 October): H1.

1982 Chheng Phon, Others Address Drama Day Ceremony. Kampuchea Review IV (31 March): H1.

Jones, C.

1987 Cambodians Revive Classical Dance after Near-Destruction of Heritage. The Christian Science Monitor. 17 June.

Martin, M.A.

1986 Vietnamised Cambodia: A Silent Ethnocide. Indochina Report 7 (July-September): 1-31.

Pack, S.

1989 Cambodian Odyssey. Press-Telegram. 30 April. pp. J1-5.

Sam, S.A.

1988 The Pin Peat Ensemble: Its History, Music, and Context. Ph. D. diss., Wesleyan University.

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