Conference Alarmed Over Cultural Decline

Participants at the University Agency of the Francophonie’s conference last week launched a desperate appeal for the safeguard of Cambodian culture, with one speaker suggesting the creation of an umbrella organization to coordinate cultural programs.

The agency, which represents 400 institutions in 30 countries that share a French heritage or culture, held a conference in Phnom Penh Thursday marking its 40th anniversary.

One of the topics discussed was the protection of intangible culture—arts, crafts and the country’s written or spoken heritage separate from Cambodia’s famous monuments.

While intense focus has been placed on Cambodia’s temples and other physical monuments, 30 years of war have also devastated other areas of the country’s intangible culture, said Ros Chantrabot, president of the Institute of Hu­man and Social Sciences at the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

“Cambodians have lost their souls; they now are ready to adopt any culture that is offered,” he said.

Also, Cambodia is increasingly connected to the world outside its borders and this has led to a cultural invasion, Ros Chantrabot said.

For example, young Cambo­dians are so used to foreign programs on television that they now are peppering daily conversation with foreign words, he said. Television broadcasts should be regulated through a special law to ensure that Cambodian programs are produced and aired, Ros Chantrabot said.

The recommendation came last week as the government told television stations that Thai and other foreign-made videos should not be broadcast until 9 pm in order to save “prime time” for Cambodian features.

The loss of intangible culture, which carries the memory of previous generations and the values of their society, goes beyond the language of Cambodia’s young people and digs away at the moral fabric that once held the country together, said Daniel Weissberg, regional director for Asia-Pacific at the University Agency.

Since protecting Cambodia’s intangible culture will require concerted efforts from both the government and NGOs, a national cultural council could be created to oversee the development of the cultural sector, Ros Chantrabot said.

But Ly Daravuth, co-director of the Reyum Institute and a teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts, warned that if such a council is created, it should not have the power to dictate styles or content.

He also cautioned against promoting a return to traditional styles and stifling the creativity of today’s artists.

“When a cultural form is no longer relevant, it ceases to exist,” he said. Artists should reflect on art from other eras but not try to copy them, Ly Daravuth said.

Talking about Cambodia’s “living culture,” he said that the country lacks an environment that would enable artists to produce and present their work. They need places to perform or exhibit, and should be encouraged to experiment. A vibrant culture includes some artists who are ahead of their time in creating tomorrow’s styles, Ly Daravuth said.

The conference was held at the Technological Institute of Cam­bodia in partnership with Radio France Internationale.

RFI, which inaugurated its FM frequency in Sihanoukville last week, is talking to the government about transmitting on FM frequencies in Battambang and Kompong Cham provinces within the next two years.


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