Reconstructing Khmer Culture

As armed clashes gave way to stability during The Cambodia Daily’s 15-year existence, Cambodian artists faced a huge challenge: preserving cultural roots nearly lost during the Khmer Rouge era while ex­pressing today’s reality.

“It’s a constant negotiation between external elements and Khmer historical influences,” said Ly Daravuth, director of the Reyum Institute and gallery.

And this has had to be done while embracing all of the country’s history, Pol Pot regime included, said famed filmmaker Rithy Panh.

“If you want to create in the future, you need a very sturdy base,” Rithy Panh said. “Your sturdy base is your culture, your history, your memories.”

This concern led Rithy Panh, whose documentary film on the torture center Tuol Sleng earned him several international awards, to create the Bophana Audio­visual Resource Center in order to preserve the country’s historical film footage, photographs and audio recordings.

For him, art development has been as crucial as economic growth for Cambodians.

“When art doesn’t exist, people die. Not in a literal sense, but economics don’t work without it because when art is not here, you’ve lost your soul,” Rithy Panh said.

Eager to revive traditional art forms while the few remaining masters were still alive, most artists in the mid-1990s focused on tradition. With the tense political climate, rare were the ones who addressed the social situation in their work.

Those who dared were not always well received.

In May 2001, the Ministry of Culture attempted to prevent a painting by Khem Chantha to be exhibited in Canada during the “Jeux de la Francophonie,” the international games for countries with a French heritage. Entitled “Economic Government,” the painting selected by a Canadian jury depicted a poor Cambodian mother and children while in the background stands the ostentatious luxury of a government Land Cruiser.

Even in September 2007, the Interior Ministry ordered the removal of four drawings showing brutality by prison guards from an exhibition of works by young prison inmates that was held at the National Cultural Center in Phnom Penh.

Today, however, a growing number of artists are experimenting with contemporary forms and themes.

Since 1993, not only artists but also the people interested in arts have evolved, said Ly Daravuth who created Reyum with the late Ingrid Muan in 1998 and has held exhibitions of both traditional and contemporary arts ever since.

“It was a lot of expats at the very beginning. Cambodians were not in the habit of going to see something like this because before, it did not exist,” he said. “But slowly, after 10 years, [Reyum] has more of a Cam­bodian audience than expats.” he said.

Ly Daravuth credits urbanization for increasing interest by locals in curated art shows, cultural lectures and academic ar­chives.

“[Cambodians] don’t just come for cocktail,” he said. “Time is precious to them, to come for one hour. So it’s a search for learning that goes with economic development and leads to a desire for more knowledge.”

When it comes to sports, an­other lived expression of culture, Cambodians did not wait for economic growth or a lessening of political tension to develop a following: promises of stability sufficed.

In March 1994, thousands of Cambodian spectators went to watch the first match-up between Cambodian and Thai boxers in 20 years, according to a Daily story at the time.

Women even got kickboxing matches of their own.

“We welcome the girl fighters because they can help develop Khmer kickboxing,” Oum You­rann, then-president of the Cam­bodian Amateur Boxing Feder­ation, was quoted as saying in a Daily story in April 2004.

In spite of limited resources, Cambodian athletes have competed at international events over the last 15 years.

The petanque team often returned with gold medals, such as the 2002 Asia Cup Petanque Championship where women players took first place, the Daily reported. The Cambodian Na­tion­al Volleyball League (Dis­abled) also won the bronze medal at the 2007 Standing Volleyball World Cup tournament.

“It hurts me that Cambodia has such a small [Olympics] team, because we are so poor,” said Olympic swimmer Hem Rak­smey in a September 2000 Daily story. “But it’s good that after Pol Pot, we can still raise an Olympic flag.” She and her brother trained for the Sydney Olympic Games in the Cambodia Plaza Hotel swimming pool in Tuol Kok district.

With stability also came golf, which, according to a tongue-and-cheek comment of Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh, was one of the informal conditions Cam­bodia had to meet to join Asean.

In 1997, he said in an April 2001 Daily story, “We already knew how to sing karaoke and eat durian…The only thing we couldn’t do was play golf. So we had to learn,” he said, alluding to the 2-year delay for Asean to approve the country’s membership.

Cambodia had its first international pro-golf tournament toward the end of last year when Siem Reap town hosted the 2007 Johnny Walker Cambodian Open.

While most books published in Khmer still remain reprints of authors’ works from the 1960s, the Khmer press over the last 15 years has covered the news and documented Cambodia’s daily life.

The industry’s history has sometimes been mired in violence: at least nine journalists have died because of, or for reasons linked to, their jobs since 1993.

A 2008 study by local human-rights group Licadho noted that Cambodia’s media continue to be “cowed, censored and sometimes bribed.”

Among 141 reporters and editors interviews, more than half of them, Licadho writes, “said they had been threatened as a result of their work.”

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