It’s funny that a country still suffering from the ravages of a cruel and genocidal war which officially ended forty years ago yesterday but which merely seems to be in an evolutionary stage of the same ongoing war against it’s own people, is the place that taught me the most about peace and forgiveness. People who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from barbarism and depravity are perhaps the most forgiving, understanding and charitable. That’s a stereotype that I can’t prove but it’s my own perception of the grace, humility and goodness that I observe and experience in Cambodia on a daily basis. It excludes the arrogance of certain factions who benefit from corruption, greed and pride which simultaneously thrives in a climate where the powerful are visible, opulent and often, as I recently heard described, “physically beautiful but with black hearts”. Despising the poor is a well known mindset of the wealthy and proud here in Cambodia, despite the fact that almost all wealth is achieved through some level of corruption. Given similar mindsets observed at home, this characteristic comes as no surprise.
On Christmas night 2018 a 25 year old chef was driving his moto home through the streets of Phnom Penh after his evening shift. A car driving erratically hit him before speeding away from the scene. Witnesses said they thought the driver was drunk. His death does not appear to have been reported on in any media. His death is unlikely to be investigated. His killer, identified as wealthy by the fact they were in a car, will likely never be identified let alone held accountable. The only reason I know of this story is that the victim was a friend’s relative. He was identified by witnesses who contacted family via his telephone. Upon discussing this with a number of unconnected locals, I have been told that it is not uncommon for car drivers who hit someone, to reverse back over their victim to ensure death, because monetary compensation is cheaper if the victim is dead compared to someone who needs ongoing health care.
The story probably sounds unreal and untrue to anyone living in a peaceful nation with a stable justice system. Newspaper reports of high ranking officials and even members of the political “first family” being involved in hit and runs are easy to come by. The average payout to impoverished families in mourning seems to be in the vicinity of US$4,000. Infamously a nephew of the Prime Minister killed a man in 2008 in a hit and run accident in which he drove at high speed on a busy city boulevard, seemingly for nothing but a thrill. It is alleged that police arriving on the scene attended to removing the number plates from the car to protect the culprits identity while his victim lay dying nearby, an arm and a leg having been torn from his body. Last year this same nephew was promoted to status of Major General in the police force in January. In May he was involved in a reckless drunken “shooting incident”. Not his first such incident, he was arrested and convicted in the space of a few hours – an exceptional response when on average suspects routinely spend months locked up before their cases can be heard. It is said he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. It is highly unlikely that his “prison” is the same dirty, overcrowded, inhumane place that most of the country’s prisoners rot away in. Given the history of Cambodia, with dozens of opposition leaders killed or disappeared since the so-called “free elections” in 1993, it is hardly surprising that gangsterism thrives in the highest ranks here. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch speak out routinely against the violence, corruption and repression which rule here.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) claims to have a unique role in “strengthening the foundations of lasting peace and equitable and sustainable development“. They state that “…political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace. Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity“. Their website describes projects in a range of elements including education, freedom of expression, protecting heritage, fostering creativity, preventing extremism, conservation, and others; all of which have the underlying ultimate goal of promoting peace. A few months ago I learned about UNESCO’s role in protecting “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH), perhaps better understood as “living heritage”, referring to such concepts as handicrafts, oral traditions, dance, costumes, music, poetry, festivals and family life. Throughout the world valuable heritage is threatened by multitudes of factors. UNESCO aims to offer protection against these threats.
Cambodian and Thai social media has apparently erupted in controversy over the past few years due to competing views about where a well known regional masked dance based on the Indian epic Ramayana originated. Consisting of many episodes performed separately, in brief Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by the demon god Ravana. The Monkey god Hanuman leads his army of monkeys loyal to Rama, against giants fighting for Ravana, to rescue Sita. Performances are narrated and accompanied by a traditional instrumental orchestra. Evidence from inscriptions seen at Angkor Wat temple show that the Cambodian dance Lakhon Khol (“masked drama”) was performed as a classical court dance by all-male artists as early as the 9th century AD. Almost, if not exactly identical, is the Thai dance named Khon which is said to have been performed since the Ayuthhaya Kingdom in the 14th century AD. Over many centuries the map of South East Asia has transformed dramatically, with kingdoms such as Champa, Funan, Ayuthhaya, Dai Viet, Siam and others all creating a blur in my confused brain. It would seem on the face of it, that Lakhon Khol originated in the pre-Angkorian era and disseminated across the region over time.
In November 2018 UNESCO held the thirteenth session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, over six days in Port Louis, Mauritius. Thailand’s Khon Masked Dance Drama submission was accepted onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Their application described the dance as being regarded as a national heritage, consisting of professional artists who dance and teach at a variety of public institutions, private companies and independently; as well as artisans, traditional musicians, designers, mask-, costume- and jewelery-makers, production technicians; sponsors and patrons from all walks of life. The training, performance and artistic centre for Khon is Bangkok, where dancers have trained and performed in the royal court, at noble class households and royal ceremonies for centuries. At least 50 institutions across Thailand offer training and performance, as well as many private training opportunities. Performances are elaborate and connected to a sense of national pride, described as constantly evolving to maintain modern meaning. Today in Thailand both men and women perform Khon. It has recently gained more public attention after Queen Sirikit began sponsorship of a revived form of the performance. Thai performers are well paid and able to dedicate time and attention to their art without the need for financial concern.
In contrast, Cambodia submitted Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet to the same committee. They were accepted onto a different list – the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Wat Svay Andet refers to the rural pagoda (Wat) 10km east of Phnom Penh where the performance has continued to be handed down from one generation to the next, serving as a ritual linked to rice farming cycles in two specific communities served by the Wat. The dance is believed to please local deities, performed annually across three simultaneous nights, to seek blessings, prosperity, rain and good crops. Rarely, other communities may ask Wat Svay Andet to perform for spiritual reasons to ward off calamities. Previously across Cambodia there were eight Lkhon Khol troupes but due to the disruption of war and poverty, Wat Svay Andet is the only ongoing troupe. Today there are two new troupes and the dance has been included in the curriculum at the Royal University of Fine Arts where between two and five Lkhon Khol dancers may graduate in any given year.
The Cambodian form remains vulnerable to extinction due to a number of factors. One factor is the ageing state of master artists, including the death last year of Yit Sarin, at age 91. He trained as a young boy at Wat Svay Andet before joining the Cambodian Royal Ballet in 1940 as a teenager and ultimately earning a professorship at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Upon his death he was recognised as Cambodia’s Lkhon Khol Master, and had completed an as-yet unpublished anthology of the craft. Finding funds for publication is an issue in an impoverished country whose leaders are not necessarily interested in art and culture. Yit Sarin was one of a few artists who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide which specifically targeted anyone with artistic or intellectual skill. Another factor is the socio-economic vulnerability of villagers who are required to contribute time and resources to the art, but for whom finding food is often a more pressing issue. Lack of resources such as that needed for maintenance and upkeep of costumes and equipment and environmental issues such as the erosion of the Mekong riverbank encroaching on performance space also challenge survival of the dance.
Despite its recent fame Wat Svay Andet is not marked on any map including Google. Undeterred, a Khmer friend and I determined we could find it. Our tuk tuk driver had never heard of it. Following Google Maps instructions to a nearby village, about 5km south of town we stopped to ask for clarification. Luck was on our side as the streetside seller informed us she came from there and we were taking the longest and most difficult route. She advised us to return to the city and take the ferry across from near the Royal Palace. The waters of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers join at Phnom Penh, the turbid brown Tonle Sap meeting the deeper green Mekong at a clearly defined line in the water. Countless ferries travel back and forth between various shores approximately 3km apart at the widest point. Past Cham fishers on their little wooden boats and big tour boats, we made it to the opposite shore with views of the Phnom Penh skyline from a very rural area. Asking directions at the local restaurant where breakfast was served, we made our way past at least three other Wats a very short distance from each other before approaching the site of a Wat with dozens of boys and young men in dance rehearsal in a custom built open air performance hall!
Our arrival caused quite a stir and unfortunately the rehearsal disbanded before I could get any proper photographs of the whole troupe rehearsing. The costume and equipment room behind the stage was unlocked for us to view. Two older teachers led the way, telling us about their endeavour, excited to learn we had read about them via the UNESCO heritage listing news. With rehearsal at an end we became feature of the day for a group of the boys, especially when our donation was excitedly announced, causing applause and then our being filmed as the teacher offered his gratitude in a speech I did not understand a single word of, short of the cheering and clapping!
Anyone visiting Phnom Penh and interested in art and culture would have an extremely enjoyable morning at Wat Svay Andet, where the troupe rehearse on Thursday and Sunday mornings, the two days when there is no primary school. As well as the troupe, the Wat houses a large Buddhist temple, massive dragon boat artistically decorated, a large lake formed by the Mekong Delta and filled with green crops during the Dry Season; orange robed monks wandering the grounds; a golden carriage used by nobility as recently as the early 20th century; colourful statues and shaded rest areas. Wat Svay Andet deserve a wider audience and recognition, as a community contributing to the cultural survival and peace of the Cambodian nation.