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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Singer gives voice to the new face of Cambodia

Young tenor hopes to change perceptions of his homeland
By Amy Smart, Times Colonist

Tenor Hy Chanthavouth is performing at a concert Monday to raise money for the Cambodian Support Group.Photograph by: Lyle Stafford, Times Colonist,

Cambodian tenor Hy Chanthavouth has the kind of voice that can change minds.

It may have played a role in changing the minds of high school administrators, who told him that he was too old to enrol when he arrived in Canada at 22.

Before he left the Kimberley school's office, a counsellor asked if he knew the song My Way by Frank Sinatra - it was his father's favourite. By the time Chanthavouth had reached the song's spirited climax, he had drawn a crowd.

"All the teachers just stopped working and came down to follow the voice," he said. "They didn't believe it was me."

Ultimately, they admitted him.

Since then, his voice has undoubtedly worked its magic a few more times, changing his teenage homestay brother's taste in music (he likes opera now) and others' ideas of what a tenor should look like - the slight 26-year-old is neither rotund nor Italian.

And if all goes as planned, he will alter Western perceptions of Cambodia.

"My goal here is to do my best, to finish school and to become well known for my country," said Chanthavouth, who works part-time in the kitchen at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. "I just want to be able to carry the Cambodian flag into the international stage and to show the world a new face of Cambodia."

As a goodwill ambassador for the Cambodia Support Group, halfway through a diploma program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, he's doing well.

Chanthavouth will perform at Knox Presbyterian Church Monday at 7: 30 p.m. in a fundraising concert for the Cambodia Support Group, a Kimberleybased non-profit. He is joined by soprano Hillary Young and pianists Braden Young, Armand Saberi and Arne Sahlen. Admission is by donation.

It's that kind of goodwill that landed Chanthavouth in Canada in the first place. He met Sahlen, president of the Cambodia Support Group, in his home city of Phnom Penh, where he volunteered for everything from postering to translating for the group.

"Here was this man with an amazing voice," said Sahlen. "And more than that, a great passion to help make a difference."

The Cambodia Support Group, which sponsored Chanthavouth to come to Canada, has helped hundreds of refugees and immigrants adapt to life in Canada, in addition to undertaking development projects in Cambodia.

Now almost four years in B.C. - and just past his first anniversary in Victoria - Chanthavouth is miles away from his youth.

He fell in love with Western music after regularly passing a church in Phnom Penh and hearing the choir. "I used to walk by every Sunday morning and I'd stop and listen to the people in the choir and I just felt something unique," he said.

From there, he couldn't help but sing while doing the dishes, to his single mother's chagrin. He said he has always been the loudmouth among his four siblings, and ultimately persuaded his mother to enrol him in music school.

Besides changing Western ideas about Cambodia - often dominated by associations with the 1970s genocide - Chanthavouth hopes to also affect psyches within his country.

"After the genocide, we all, including my mom and her family, tend to be stuck in their past," he said. He hopes that his success will make them proud, even if Western music is still foreign to his family.

"Music like opera means nothing to the people in Cambodia, but perhaps it might mean something to them when I become well known."
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Facing history in Cambodia

Cambodia is beginning to deal with the legacy of decades of civil war: soldiers and civilians maimed by landmines.

By Akshan deAlwis

Akshan deAlwis will be a freshman at Noble and Greenough School in the fall.

I was nine when I read “First They Killed my Father.” It had a profound impact on me and I wanted to learn more about both the glory that was the Khmer civilization and its more recent history of conflict.

Last month, I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia, a city founded upon fable and legend, and more recently tears.

Siem Reap is home to to the majestic Angkor Temple complex. As I drove down the main road from the airport, I watched as hotel upon hotel passed my window, their lights dimly lit in the still of the night.

A large portion of Cambodia’s economy comes from tourism. But Cambodia has not always been a tourist haven. It has actually been one of the most tragic places in the world, and that legacy remains.

Cambodia was plunged into civil war for more than 20 years. A decade of genocide left more than 25,000 combatants and 2 million civilians dead and countless more disabled.

The main reason for my visit was to meet with the Angkor Association for the Disabled (AAD), a meeting arranged through a much admired family friend. At her request, I did a slide show on the rights of children with disabilities as outlined by the United Nations, which she had translated into Khmer and sent to AAD.

The day of my meeting, I woke up at dawn to see the sun rise over the Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu and later Buddhist temple in the world, built by Suryavarman II in the 12th century. It is the proud symbol of the Khmer Culture, depicted on the Cambodian flag. As I quietly tiptoed around the towering spires, the sun slowly burst into the purple sky. I held my breath, afraid to spoil the beauty of the moment.

As the light broke through the still morning, I gasped at the exquisite bas reliefs that brought to life the churning of the sea of milk by the gods and demons to create Amrita, the elixir of life.

The civil war in Cambodia began with the invasion of US and Vietnamese forces in 1969 to attack Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge forces that were using bases in Cambodia. When Saigon fell in 1975, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to Khmer Rouge forces, who were lead by Pol Pot.

The city was evacuated, and the population was sent to the countryside to work. All things “western” were destroyed. Libraries and temples were ransacked and razed. The agricultural methods were changed to the “Traditional Cambodian Methods” of the 11th century.

In 1979, when a leftist Vietnamese-Cambodian force captured Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began a guerilla war, laying hundreds of land mines. Although the civil war officially ended in 1993, the mines remain.

Cambodia is the third most land mined country in the world. According to UNICEF, “So common are they in Cambodia that they are now used for fishing, or as property security devices, or even to settle domestic disputes.”

According to the Asian Development Bank, close to 10 percent of the
Cambodian adult population is disabled due to malnutrition, violence, and land mines.

After breakfast, I was picked up by the Director of the AAD, Sem Sovantha who drove a car with levers because he is missing both legs.

Sem was a captain in the army, his future ahead of him, until the day he stumbled upon a “double personnel” mine filled with half a pound of TNT. Both of his legs were ripped off.

Most land mine victims are on their own, he said. No one will employ them, hospitals are already overflowing, and families cannot support them with the average annual income of $805.

Sem hit the streets, begging. But he knew that things had to change, so he put himself through school and set up the AAD. His goal is simple: to make Cambodia a better place, not through foreign intervention, but through self help.

Sem told me about the new disability law that the Cambodian government recently passed. “The law is only on paper,” he said. "This is our law and we were not consulted.''

The law aims to protect the rights of persons with disabilities and to ensure equal opportunities for persons with disabilities. It provides for accessible education, health care, and employment for persons with disabilities. The law also sets up a council to advise on the administration of the law. While the law is sweeping in its rhetoric, the terms are ambiguous and merely aspirational.

Sem said his organization would be educating police and community officials about the rights all persons with disabilities have to live in dignity and equality.

Sem showed off his group's workshop, where he and others teach peers how to make a living by playing traditional Cambodian music and making woven baskets and small wooden figures. “Work creates the first step to empowerment”, Sem told me proudly.

As the Khmer Rouge trials continue in Phnom Penh, I want those on trial and their judges to remember Sem and his peers. The two million dead are not the only victims of the genocide.

To learn more about Sem, go to his website at:
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