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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Cambodian culture re-emerged after the devastating Pol Pot years

By Tom Fawthrop, Bangkok Post

The awesome grace and meticulous movements of the performers have entranced audiences since ancient times, an experience now shared with plane-loads of tourists descending on Siem Reap in western Cambodia, the jumping off point for the world's largest temple complex - legendary Angkor Wat.

Dating back to the days of the great Angkor empire that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries, Cambodian dance is a celebration of the gods, mythology, and the world of the royal palace.

This 144-page, lavishly-illustrated, coffee-table book authored by Denise Heywood, a lecturer on Asian art, brings the reader a fine appreciation of Cambodian dance intertwined with the turbulent history and how it has always been at the core of Khmer culture and identity. The book details and explains the origins and development of the dances, music, and shadow puppetry, all in the context of their spiritual importance as a medium for communicating with the gods.

But Cambodia's recent tragedy brought its great tradition of dance near oblivion. The "Killing Fields" regime of the Khmer Rouge not only killed through slave labor, starvation, and slaughter nearly 2 million people, including 90 percent of artists, dancers, and writers, but it also came close to extinguishing Khmer culture and tradition. Pol Pot's brand new agrarian dystopia had no place for the arts, culture, or any other kind of entertainment except xenophobic songs and Pol Pot propaganda.

Heywood first arrived in Cambodia as a freelance writer in 1994, and her interest in dance was heightened by the extraordinary tale of how a few dancers and choreographers survived the genocidal years from 1975 to 79.

In January 1979, a new Heng Samrin government backed by Vietnam proclaimed the restoration of normal society after four years of the Pol Pot regime had trashed most aspects of family life and the previous society.

A handful of survivors emerged from the darkest era in Cambodian history dedicated to resuscitating their cherished traditions of dance. Actor, poet, and director Pich Tum Kravel and former director of the National Conservatory Chheng Phon were among the cultural stars who miraculously survived.

They became the key people enlisted by the new Ministry of Information and Culture under Keo Chenda, charged with the critical mission of bringing all the surviving dancers together.

The expertise was handed down through the generations from master to pupil and never documented in written form, so everything depended on human memory. The late Chea Samy became the leading teacher at the re-established School of Fine Arts in 1981 (ironically Pol Pot was her brother-in-law).

Piecing together the collective memories of survivors and much of the vast repertory, the performing arts were revived.

When this reviewer saw the post-Pol Pot Cambodian National Dance Company perform in Phnom Penh in 1981, it was a highly-emotional experience. Members of the audience wept. This outpouring of raw emotion encompassed both tears of sadness for those loved ones they would never see again - and tears of joy that Khmer dance was alive again and had risen from the ashes of nihilistic destruction.

Nothing had greater significance for the Khmer people in this process of rebuilding than this revival of the nation's soul and psyche in which dance plays a central role.

While Heywood is to be commended for her documentation of the revival of dance in the 1980s, it is a pity she has wrongly contextualized this cultural renaissance by claiming that "Heng Samrin's Vietnamese government" organized a national arts festival in 1980.

In fact, President Heng Samrin and everyone else in the new government were all Cambodians and not Vietnamese. Somehow the author has been infected with the cold war propaganda emanating from Asean governments and US embassies in the region.

The reality was more complicated. The cultural revival depicted in this book makes it clear that Vietnamese control over security and foreign policy, despite tensions and differences with their Cambodian allies, did not block the re-emergence of Khmer culture that at the same time planted the seeds for future independence.

In 2003, Unesco bestowed formal recognition proclaiming the Royal Ballet of Cambodia to be a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage. And one year later, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet choreographer and dancer, was crowned king.

Thai classical dance borrows much from the dance traditions of Angkorian times. After Siam's invasion of Siem Reap in 1431, hundreds of Cambodian dancers were abducted and brought to dance in Ayutthaya, at that time the capital hosting the royal court of the Thai king.

This timely book also mentions that Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Shapiro has, among many other projects, adapted Mozart's Magic Flute to Khmer classical dance as part of a 2006 festival to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth.

This production with many innovations caused a stir among the purists. Shapiro passionately defends her new productions against the critics, telling the author "increasing the repertory of dance will help to preserve it and prevent it from atrophying or becoming a museum piece."
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Cambodia Releases E-Government Guidelines

PHNOM PENH, The agency behind the nationwide e-government released a long-awaited guidelines for the first time, at the end of last week detailing what ministries and other government departments needed to do, to take their services online, a local media reported on Wednesday.

The National Information Communications Technology Development Agency (NIDA) also released information security to ensure government information was kept secure and protected from system intruders, China's Xinhua news agency reported, citing a report from the Phnom Penh Post.

NIDA Secretary General Phu Leewood was quoted as saying that the e-Government Service Deployment Plan was important for building information communication technology (ICT) capacity in govenment and also for tracking progress and what remained to be done.

"This is a master map for us to walk together in the right diection for all [government and private] institutions to get up to speed with the global ICT sector," he said.

Thirty government ministries and institutions received the two sets of guidelines at a seminar last week.

The guidelines were based on a needs analysis conducted at all relevant ministries in 2007 with technical assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

They identify areas in which e-government can be used to build the public service competency of government institutions, provide guidelines for collecting data and help establish a blueprint for expanding government services.

Van Khema, a deputy director at NIDA in Charge of networks, said the key obstacle in the path of the e-government rollout is the connection of all 24 provinces to the central government's information-sharing system via a fibre-optic backbone.

He declined to give a timeline, saying only the infrastructure would be in place "soon".

Called the Provincial Administration Information System Project, the e-government project has a budget of some US$15 million to connect offices within each province to one another, and another US$20 million to connect each province to the government in Phnom Penh.

Three data centers -- in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville -- will act as hubs for surrounding provinces.

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ADB, S.Korea Support Cambodia to Improve Cross-Border Road Links

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Republic of Korea are supporting road and border improvements in Cambodia to help reduce poverty, increase economic opportunities, and boost ongoing efforts to strengthen trade and tourism in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), a press release issued by ADB on Tuesday said.

ADB's Board of Directors approved a loan equivalent to 16.3 million U.S. dollars for the project which will rehabilitate 113 kilometers of a national road in the northwest of the country, and upgrade a cross-border facility with Thailand. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance of Korea is extending a loan equivalent to 25. 6 million U.S. dollars through its Economic Development and Cooperation Fund (EDCF).

The pot-holed gravel road, that is impassable in the wet season due to flooding, cuts through two of the poorest provinces in the country -- Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey. It links up with another major route which is a key conduit for goods and people between northwest Cambodia and northeast Thailand, and also forms a feeder connection to the GMS east-west corridor.

Roads are the lifeblood of transport in the GMS but poor surfaces raise costs, cause lost economic opportunities and contribute to high accident rates. The upgraded road and border facility will reduce travel times, improve traffic safety, increase access to markets, and provide new job and business opportunities. It will be another step to strengthen connectivity and develop economic corridors across the GMS -- a bloc of six nations committed to closer ties that support sustainable growth, boost employment and reduce poverty.

"The project will support the GMS strategy by improving connectivity between Thailand and Cambodia, thereby enhancing subregional transport and trade," said Shihiru Date, transport specialist in ADB's Southeast Asia Department.

The improved facilities are expected to aid cross-border tourism as the restored road connects to a key east-west route to Siem Reap site of the world famous Angkor Wat temple. Opportunities for contract farmers, who cultivate high-value fruit for export to neighboring countries should also expand, while the all-weather surface will improve access to health and education facilities. The project will include an HIV prevention and anti- human trafficking program, as new cross-border roads represent a potential threat for the spread of communicable diseases, and the trafficking of women and children.

ADB's loan, from its concessional Asian Development Fund, comprises 34 percent of the total project cost. It has a 32-year term with an eight year grace period carrying a one percent interest charge, and 1.5 percent for the balance. The Government of Cambodia will contribute counterpart funds of six million U.S. dollars, while the Ministry of Public Works and Transport will be the executing agency.

The estimated completion date for the project is December 2013.
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KRouge trial can help trauma

PHNOM PENH - THE trial of Khmer Rouge leaders is a chance for the regime's victims to overcome their lingering trauma, a psychological expert told Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal on Tuesday.

Dr Chhim Sotheara was testifying at the trial of Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav and who stands accused of overseeing the torture and execution of roughly 15,000 people at Tuol Sleng prison during the regime's 1975-79 rule.

But the expert, who is director of Cambodia's Transcultural Psycho-social Organisation, noted that the victims' trauma seemed to reoccur after they observed the court proceedings.

The denial by some Khmer Rouge leaders of their roles in the atrocities also created more pain for the victims, he said.

Dr Sotheara said that people were traumatised throughout the nation after the Khmer Rouge destroyed the country's infrastructure and created an 'environment of fear'.

He told the court that Cambodians could cope with their three-decade-old trauma only when justice had been served and the truth behind regime was revealed.

'The trial of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge is an opportunity for the victims who have suffered and who have been traumatised for many years to overcome their trauma through justice,' he said.

'It will be very helpful to heal the wounds, the suffering of those victims,' he added.

Dr Sotheara told the court that for every five Cambodians, two had developed trauma, while 14 percent of country's population aged over 18 had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

Led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's cities in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia, resulting in the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork and torture.

Several senior officials from the regime face trial. -- AFP

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