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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Cambodian and Thai commanders meet at site of border skirmish

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP) — Cambodian and Thai commanders met at their tense disputed border area Saturday amid accusations that each side had caused a border skirmish that left three soldiers injured.

One Cambodian soldier and two Thai troops were wounded when units exchanged gun and rocket fire during a brief clash Friday near an ancient temple in the area.

In an attempt to cool tensions Srey Dek, commander of Cambodian forces in the area, met with his Thai counterpart, Colonel Chayan Huaysoongnern, on Saturday afternoon at a Buddhist pagoda in the disputed territory, said the Cambodian cabinet spokesman.

"The two sides called for the situation to return to normalcy," Cambodian cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan told AFP.

The foreign ministries of both countries issued formal letters on Saturday accusing the other's troops of trespassing and firing first in Friday's skirmish.

Cambodia's letter to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh warned that "armed provocation by Thai soldiers could lead to very grave consequences, including full-scale armed hostility".

Later Saturday the Thai foreign ministry responded with its own letter, given to a Cambodian diplomat.

"Thailand protested on two points -- that Cambodian soldiers trespassed into Thai territory and that Cambodian soldiers opened fire first," a foreign ministry official said.

The clash came amid attempts to make progress in talks to resolve the decades-long border dispute.

The dispute flared in July after the Khmer temple of Preah Vihear was awarded world heritage status by the UN cultural body UNESCO, angering nationalists in Thailand who still claim ownership of the site.

That spilled into a military standoff, in which up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops faced off for six weeks.

Both sides agreed to pull back in mid-August, leaving just a few dozen soldiers stationed near the temple, but the neighbours have continued to trade accusations of violating each other's sovereignty.

Phay Siphan said Thai prime minister Somchai Wongsawat was still expected to visit the Cambodian capital later this month to speak with Cambodian premier Hun Sen about the simmering border dispute.

"The talks between the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers on October 13 in Phnom Penh will take place as planned," he said.

During an inspection of the skirmish site Saturday, Cambodian deputy commander General Chea Dara said Thai troops had intruded more than a kilometre (0.6 miles) into Cambodia.

"Our troops are patient but they must protect themselves too," Dara told reporters.

Thai troops appeared to be keeping their distance from their Cambodian counterparts on Saturday but a Cambodian officer said the Thais had dug a fresh trench on disputed land.

"Digging a trench breaches an earlier agreement between Cambodia and Thailand," said Major Meas Yoeurn.
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Protecting Cambodia's Treasures

The United States government and the government of Cambodia have agreed to extend their Memorandum of Understanding "Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from Cambodia from the Bronze Age through the Khmer Era."

This extension, consistent with a recommendation made by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, represents a continuation of cooperation that began in 1999. Emergency U.S. import restrictions were then implemented to help reduce the pillage of Cambodia's archaeological heritage and the illicit trafficking in such material.

This U.S. action is in response to a request made by the government of Cambodia under Article 9 of the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Cambodia is the first country in East Asia to receive the cooperation of the United States in protecting its cultural property in this manner.

The extended Memorandum of Understanding expands the scope of the original to include archaeological objects from the Bronze and Iron Ages. It specifically restricts the import into the United States of ancient Cambodian stone, metal, and ceramic archaeological material unless an export permit is issued by Cambodia or there is verifiable documentation that the objects left Cambodia prior to the effective date of the restriction.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has published a list of restricted categories of objects, amending it to include material representing the Bronze and Iron Ages. The restricted objects may enter the United States only if accompanied by an export permit issued by Cambodia or documentation verifying its provenance prior to 1999 and if no other applicable U.S. laws are violated.

The United States is also helping Cambodia protect its cultural treasures through financial grants provided by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Cultural Heritage Center has recommended an award in excess of $957,000 to the World Monuments Fund for the conservation of the 10th century Phnom Bakheng Temple in Cambodia.

The United States is committed to working with Cambodia to preserve its rich and ancient cultural heritage.

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Charmed by the steps of the ancients in Cambodia

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did their best to wipe it out. But Cambodia's historic dance is making a recovery of sorts

By Rob Crossan

Boramey Chhaychan is 23. She has been dancing since she was nine, and learning apsara – the ancient and almost extinct dance of Cambodia – for the past six years . "It takes a huge amount of concentration to be the best," she tells me as she smoothes down the tiny creases in her makot – the silk gown into which she is sown before each performance, in order to achieve the requisite figure-embracing fit.

"The body has to be soft and flexible at the same time, your fingers have to be soft, too. There's also so much bending involved if you are the lead dancer that you absolutely can't be fat either," says Boramey. The list of requirements goes on. The apsara dancer should have, according to instruction manuals, "a round body like the body of a red ant" and "the eyes must be oval and sharp with folds in the eyelids".

Assuming that their eyelids are blessed with the requisite folds, the apsara dancer can then take to the stage, accompanied by instruments including the kong thom, a horseshoe-shaped semi-circle of metal chimes resting on wood that the player sits in the middle of, taut drum skins called rumana and a fish-skeleton-shaped xylophone called roneat thung.

Tonight, after days of sporadic power cuts, electricity miraculously returns to light up the stage as Boramey begins to perform the ancient dance of the perfect celestial female beings of the Khmer kingdom. Her hips roll in slow motion, fingers rise coquettishly to the hips and lips, long thin fingers are outstretched, beckoning and then recoiling. But only the tiniest glimmer of coy sexuality is ever hinted at. The falsetto choir of voices of the dozen singers to the side of the stage wails as the drum, slow and steady as a heartbeat, begins to flutter and float. Boramey kneels on the floor, seemingly as brittle as a falling leaf, before rising like an uncoiling snake. Her bare soles and heels are just as expressive as the hands and arms; every limb creates a flowing narrative of shapes.

Boramey ends by joining both thumbs together in the centre of the chest – an expression that is circumspect, meditative and motionless.

This extraordinary dance dates back to the 12th century. Yet in the late 20th century Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge almost succeeded in wiping it out for ever.

Even now, it only just survives: "The locals don't really seem to care about apsara," laments Vang Metry, of the Apsara Arts Association. "We only really get visitors from overseas who come to see our students perform. I give away free tickets sometimes but still almost nobody from round here shows up. They'd rather go and see rock'n'roll, I guess."

The Apsara Arts Association, set up 10 years ago, is a remarkable creation. It is located in the district of Thmey in the west of chaotic Phnom Penh. The theatre is built on concrete stilts beneath a thatched roof. The sides of the theatre are exposed to the huge lotus plants that rest on the waters of the Pong Peay. This is a stagnant expanse that carries the weight of much of the neighbourhood's sewage; to Westerners, the first word of the area's name is spot on.

The 130 students at the apsara school range in age from four to 23. A significant number are orphans. Accommodation is provided for them within the school; they practise dance in the morning and study in the afternoon. It's not just the allure of rock'n'roll that is preventing any chance of apsara regaining ground in the popular consciousness. Fire destroyed the National Theatre in 1994. And the University of Fine Arts, where apsara and other traditional dances are taught, was sold off to a property developer last year. The faculty was moved far out of Phnom Penh on a dirt road that is regularly washed away in wet season, a move which has had dire consequences for student numbers.

An additional problem is that to be a lead apsara dancer you must be unmarried and a virgin. When one of the country's best new prospects performed in front of the tourism minister for Cambodia in 2000, he decided to marry her.

"He stole her from us!" claims Metry. Now divorced, Ouk Phalla still dances. But, due to the law of the apsara, can no longer play the lead in ancient stories such as The Churning of the Ocean Milk, which tells how apsara girls were created through a symbolic Brahmanist scripture.

According to myth, the apsara dancers performed in the sky. Their curvaceous figures grace the bas-reliefs of the Angkor Wat temples. The iconic towers of this ancient complex comprise Cambodia's most popular tourist attraction. Angkor Wat was once home to thousands of apsara dancers, who performed for Cambodia's kings during the 12th century, a time when the kingdom covered vast areas of what today is Thailand and Vietnam.

The dancers on the walls of the temples are naked, though dancers today are adorned in silk chorabab skirts and five-pointed crowns with red frangipani flowers sown on to the side with cotton thread to create the effect of a falling stem.

Performances continued in the dancing pavilion of the Royal Palace for moonlight shows until the Khmer Rouge seized power in the mid-Seventies. Pol Pot's murderous thugs began to exterminate anyone who they believed stood in the way of achieving a peasant agrarian utopia. That included the practitioners of apsara.

Anybody with any hint of intellectual merit was slaughtered by order of "Brother Number One", as Pol Pot was known. Judgments were made on terms as spurious as whether a person wore glasses. Veng was a dance instructor who was forced to leave Phnom Penh and work in the fields.
"I had to hide my CV," Veng tells me. "The Khmer Rouge asked me what my job was and I lied and told them I was a farmer. It was only by going into the fields and observing what people did that I didn't get killed. I watched the farming methods that everyone else was using and simply copied whatever they did. Somehow they never noticed that I wasn't a farmer and I avoided death."

After the regime was finally defeated by an invading Vietnamese army, apsara was considered a low priority when it came to rebuilding this most disturbed and abused of societies. It was only in 1995 that the first revived performance was staged, guided by Princess Boppha Devl, a dancer with the royal troupe in the Sixties. She studied the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat to re-learn the 1,500 positions that masters of the dance must know.

As the light darkens and a post-show dance class ends with the students giggling as they try to maintain their difficult stances, Vang laments the problems of keeping apsara alive.

"It's not getting any easier. We have power cuts almost every day in this part of the city. The government doesn't support us in any way," she says. "We rely entirely on funding from foreign donors.

Culture is not a high priority for the government, which is a shame as this is such an important part of Cambodian history. A lot of the students here are now dancing in the tourist restaurants near Angkor Wat. I would love there to be a day when visitors would mention apsara before they mention Pol Pot. If this is lost, then a part of Cambodia is lost forever."

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Cambodia. From Heathrow, Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thaiairways.co.uk) flies to Phnom Penh via Bangkok, Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies via Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Airlines (084 4800 2380; www.singaporeair.co.uk) via Singapore.

The writer travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838000; www.audleytravel.com), which offers tailor-made trips to Cambodia reflecting themes including apsara. A 10-day itinerary visiting Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville costs from £2,045 per person, including return flights from Heathrow, transfers, tours and B&B.

You can buy an offset through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 981 888; www.phnompenh.raffles.com). Doubles start at US$255 (£146), room only.

Visiting there

Apsara Arts Association, 71 Street 598, Phnom Penh (00 855 12 979 335; www.apsara-art.org). Perfomances take place most Saturdays at 6.30pm.

More information

British passport-holders require a visa. These can be obtained on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Riep airports or online at www.mfaic.gov.kh; $20 (£11.40).

www.tourismcambodia.com;00 855 23 216 666

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