For many years, Cambodia has been applying for the inclusion of its traditional martial art bokator on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But so far, the Kingdom has not achieved this goal.

Still, officials say that there are some positive signs in the submission process. Cambodia has worked hard on the latest application and expects to receive good news from UNESCO’s assessors by the end of this year.

Bokator is a martial art that was created by the ancient Khmer people to defend themselves and to fight wild beasts.

According to an ancient legend, one of the earliest masters went into battle with a lion which often came to attack the animals and people of his village. The term bokator is derived from the mixed words “bok”, meaning “to pound”, and “tao”, which refers to the lion, the strongest carnivorous animal known to the ancient Khmer.

Historical evidence of early bokator techniques can be seen carved on the walls of ancient temples. Many examples can be found in the 7th century Sambor Prei Kuk temple and later, in the 11th century Angkorian period, many movements of bokator martial arts were carved on the walls of temples, especially Angkor Wat.

With this long history, bokator has lived with the Cambodian people from generation to generation. In addition to being used in the field of national defence, bokator is also a traditional sport. Many Cambodians train and compete in traditional festivals which commemorate the many generations of ancestors who worked hard to create this invaluable martial art heritage for future generations.

During the genocidal regime under Pol Pot, bokator almost disappeared. The Khmer Rouge attempted to eradicate all traces of traditional culture. Millions of innocent Cambodians were massacred during this dark time in the Kingdom’s history, and almost all bokator trainers and practitioners were among them.

However, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown on January 7, 1979, some of the surviving martial artists and trainers began to gather in groups to conserve, revive and develop bokator. Finally, in 2004, Cambodia established the bokator federation and began to recruit bokator trainers and document the traditional practices of bokator in the community.

Thanks to these great efforts, Cambodia was able to prepare documents to apply for the inclusion of bokator as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2008. The application was changed in 2017 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH).

After seeing the number of bokator trainers and communities that were actively preserving the traditions and customs of bokator and arranging for successors in their places, it was clear that bokator was no longer in need of urgent safeguarding.

Speaking about the change in status, Siyong Sophearith, head of the General Department of Cultural Technology, said: “This change, first of all, depended on the community – they are the owners of the intangible heritage. It was not the state, but the villagers, who compiled the history and living documents of bokator. UNESCO has agreed to our request to add it to the ICH register, because now the art is revived and popular.”

“When we applied in the past, we had to aim for protected status for the art form, because the people of Cambodia did not have the resources to protect and maintain it without the intervention of outside partners. Now that we have seen its resurgence, we think it should be added to the ICH register,” he added.

The two attempts to submit bokator to UNESCO were unsuccessful, with the organisation requiring Cambodia to submit additional documents and meet certain criteria. After consulting with UNESCO, the Kingdom submitted a third application in 2019. But due to the Covid-19 crisis, the documentation was delayed until 2021. Results will be announced at the end of this year.

“The 24-nation commission that represents the 2003 Convention on the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage has a team that carries out the evaluation. This panel of judges do not judge whether one heritage is superior to another,” Sophearith explained

“The experts are evaluating whether our submission is appropriate or not. Because this convention is related to heritage work, they will check that our submission includes protection mechanisms, whether protection has progressed, and the involvement of the general public,” he added.

When asked if bokator was expected to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Sophearith said: “It is up to the UNESCO commission to analyse what we have submitted. Many countries with more money than us have had their applications declined, so we will have to wait and hear what their decision is,” he said.

“Whether we are approved or not, I think applying was a good move. If we are approved, Cambodian bokator will be recognised. If we fail, people’s awareness of the art will still be raised. We have worked hard with the participation of experts from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and UNESCO in Phnom Penh, with some other institutions also working on the project. We prepared our case with the utmost care. I don’t know what the result will be – we must all wait together.

“The decision will be announced in late November or early December, I was told,” he added.

King Norodom Sihamoni has requested that UNESCO include bokator and the Koh Ker temple on their World Heritage list.

The King’s requests were made during a conversation with UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay last November in Paris. At the time, Azoulay, who has been re-elected to her position, expressed her gratitude to the King for delivering speech at the opening ceremony of the 41st General Assembly on the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of UNESCO.

In addition to its efforts to add bokator to the ICH list, Cambodia is also working to promote it on the world stage. The Kingdom achieved a success when the representatives of ASEAN countries fully supported its inclusion in next year’s 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, which Cambodia will host for the first time in its history.

After receiving the SEA Games Federation Council’s support to introduce bokator into the biennial multi-sport event, Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of both the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) and the Cambodian SEA Games Organising Committee (CAMSOC), said it was a great honour.

“This was one of our main objectives from the beginning. It is a huge honour as hosts to have our national martial art included in the SEA Games. It was a successful campaign, and our plans came to fruition after the council delegates threw their support behind its official inclusion,” he said.

The Cambodian bokator team participated in a lively performance as Cambodia received the SEA Games flag from hosts Vietnam at the closing ceremony of the 31st games in Hanoi in May. This unique show demonstrated to all of the ASEAN nations that the Kingdom is ready to host the games.

The team is also looking forward to welcoming those countries to compete in 2023. Cambodian Bokator Federation president Chan Sarun has already said that the bokator artists will strive for gold medals, as hosts.