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Lack of commitment constrains culture

Lack of commitment constrains culture

When six performing artists stayed behind in America last year, it was front-page

news in Cambodia even before the rest touched down at Pochentong. In January, another

six disappeared. With the 'defections' to Canada in July 2001, this was the third

such incident over two years. Cambodia has lost 20 of its top performers to North

America over a decade.

At the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), the sense of loss was palpable.

"We depend on the younger generation for the survival of our art," says

a downcast Proeung Chhieng, dean of the Choreographic School. "What's the point

if those we train for years give it all up to live abroad?"

One draconian tactic, used in 1992, forced artists to sign contracts threatening

their families with arrest, should they be tempted to jump ship.

"Of course we wouldn't have gone so far - it was just to scare people,"

insists Chhieng. It didn't work: Five stayed behind, including the great Apsara dancer

Yim Devi.

Among the latest group was top reed-player Nol Kol and the young monkey-dance star

Pheng Sarannarith. Now a doughnut-seller in Long Beach, Peng exists on less than

the minimum wage. He won't be dancing much. According to a local shopkeeper: "He

may get to perform a token something at Khmer New Year, but that's about it."

Nol Kol did return, however. He hadn't intended to stay, he says, until encouraged

by "people I didn't know". Taking a job in a Chinese restaurant, he worked

thirteen-hour days without a break for $50.

"In America, that's nothing," he says. "I'd prefer to be poor

here and useful, than poor and overworked there and be a nobody."

He suspects Peng is feeling the same, but believes "some people, having made

that decision, cannot face the shame of coming back. They can't even be even a part-time

artist over there. I would have had to change my profession and start from scratch."

Should there be another tour, Kol will warn artists of the consequences of their


Chhieng knows of others who want to return. If so, the procedure is simple.

"Cambodia's Washington embassy is obliged to issue their nationals with

a new passport and travel documents to return home," says a US official.

"We don't penalize people trying to leave the country, although they might

be denied re-entry."

After the 2001 defections, the Washington Post quoted Radio Free Asia journalist

Vuthy Huot as saying: "In Cambodia, as a performer, you can't survive, and there

are no stages to perform on."

Access to jobs, he said, came "as a result of nepotism and flattery". Point

out that Cambodia has the Chaktomuk Theater and another at RUFA, and Huot

merely repeats that since the national Bassac Theater burned down in 1994, dancers

have been "demoralized".

Kol flatly rejects this.

"You hear these kinds of things all the time in the US," he says. "Actually

the arts are growing here and more people are taking note of their importance. We

have acquired a certain pride in the arts."

Pride maybe, but a living? For almost eight years now 529 Ministry of Culture and

Fine Arts (MoCFA) performers exist on salaries of between $15 and $25 a month, a

sum occasionally augmented by foreign tours or $5-to-$10 performance fees. Less than

10 percent manage to make a living from their art, even when combining performing

with teaching and the odd TV appearance.

"Of course it's a question of their livelihoods," says Hang Soth, director

of MoCFA's Performance Department. But invite official comment on how to stem the

drain of talent and shoulders keep shrugging.

"We want very much to improve artists' daily lives," insists Secretary

of State Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth. "Until things improve with our economy,

there's nothing we can do."

The sponsors, mostly North American foundations which are unhappy at bearing the

costs if it unwittingly encourages defections, see it differently. Sam Miller of

the New England Foundation believes the country's artists need a "healthier

and more supportive environment: the fact that artists chose not to return speaks

of the urgent need for long range systematic planning and development that will build

the capacity of the performing arts."

In Cambodia, foreign foundations, businesses and NGOs have supported the country's

limited revival of culture. Small donations have furthered the research, preservation

and performance of its intangible heritage, from masked theater to shadow puppetry.

And it has made a difference. Six years ago, once-a-month performances of classical

dance were invariably tied to political events and inaccessible to ordinary Cambodians.

Today there's even occasionally the luxury of choosing between two or three performances,

with one organization, the NGO Sovanna Phum, providing regular weekend shows.

Yet Cambodia is one of the few Southeast Asian countries lacking a properly managed

arts infrastructure. Small foreign impresarios employing Cambodians cannot substitute

for comprehensive programs of events one finds in Malaysia or Indonesia, where national

cultural policies have long replaced empty slogans, and performing arts are both

subsidized by the government and generate private sponsorship.

MoCFA funds annual events like National Cultural Day or ASEAN summits. Yet its plans

for more ambitious festivals, be they at Siem Reap or Sambor Pre Kuk, usually fall

foul of an unsympathetic Council of Ministers. Hang Soth says the now annual floods

provide the routine excuse not to deliver.

"Just look at the list of proposals submitted to the government", he says,

"and see the line of zeros next to our projects."

Even so, the funding of Cambodia's culture is both sporadic and Byzantine. Sok An,

representing the Council of Ministers, publicly "donates" five million

riel at Cultural Day, while high-ranking officials including Hun Sen and Heng Samrin

have given gifts for both private and public performances. The King sponsors occasional

Palace concerts, and helps out with performances at the Water Festival.

To add to the imbroglio, the former Minister of Culture, Cheng Pohn, runs a cultural

hub out of the Vipassana center in Takhmau. Through his wide-ranging influence, he

manages to fund ambitious educational projects and dry season tours of lakhoan bassac

to the provinces, events that should really be the responsibility of the government.

When Princess Norodom Buppha Devi became Culture Minister in 1998, people anticipated

change. A former Apsara dancer who performed for De Gaulle, she seemed perfectly

placed to raise artists' international profiles and to challenge the internal pecking

order. The rebuilding of the Bassac Theater, the very stage on which she performed,

would be a priority, people said.

The Princess has worked assiduously in her area of expertise: the accurate reconstruction

of classical dances post-Pol Pot. She is currently helping UNESCO include Cambodian

classical dance onto the World Heritage List, as exclusively performed by troupes

from RUFA and the National Theater.

"If we are to preserve classical dance, we cannot let other companies devalue

the art form," she says firmly. The classical repertory and its research component

have expanded incrementally.

But four years into her tenure, architect Vann Molyvann's still derelict Bassac Theater

has come to symbolize the malaise of the Cambodian performing arts.

Artists, many in training since age seven, remain among the poorest civil servants

with top salaries of around $30, compared to the $650 afforded prosecuting lawyers

and judges. Apparently lawyers are valued more highly than artists, but the reality

is that artists lack political clout and adequate representation.

A Funcinpec ministry, even one run by a Royal, comes low down in the pecking order.

Eleven billion riel annually ($2.8 million, 0.6 percent of GDP) barely pays the salaries

of some 1,700 MoCFA employees countrywide. This is a poor ministry, which generates

no income and can barely afford even basic necessities such as A4 paper. In 1998,

the ministry lost the right to collect tourist entrance fees at Angkor Park to SOKIMEX,

a potentially huge loss of income.

It is widely assumed that the Princess has little influence at the Council of Ministers.

Neither does she seem to think it's her brief to raise money privately. Occasionally

the Princess appears at RUFA to hand out gifts in the form of 10,000 riel notes to

her charges.

A dearth of expertise or capable advisors, redundant Royal protocol and the residue

of an inert Communist-style bureaucracy all appear to contribute to the perception

of the ministry as one of Cambodia's most atrophied and dysfunctional. Even the act

of producing a program note requires outside help. There's no press officer or web

site. Emails get read once a month, and get little response.

Julie Chenot, a UN volunteer helping the ministry, points to poor communication and

the lack of a cultural policy.

"The ministry needs to sell and market its ideas effectively, both to the government

or the donor community at large."

As it stands, MoCFA lacks the expertise to create workable proposals. The best projects

tend to be taken elsewhere, for lack of a means of implementation.

Up to 70 percent of other ministries' budgets comes from foreign donors. The Princess

claims "international organizations help us because they understand the value

of Khmer culture", yet, aside from the occasional unilateral gift, this is a

no-go ministry for investors.

"Governments want to help and regularly inquire into the identity and objectives

of the ministry, but the response is usually so slow that parties lose interest,"

says one insider.

Expert advice is urgently needed to help attract both private and public investment

and, crucially, generate funds for infrastructure projects and sustainable public

performance. Other ministries get it. The Urbanization Ministry, for example, set

up a technical advisory group courtesy of the Finnish government.

Improvements have been coming, slowly. The last Cultural Day introduced outdoor events

to showcase different performing genres at Wat Phnom and Wat Botum. The people finally

got to celebrate their own culture!

The more ambitious plan for an advertising company to sponsor performances in the

provinces didn't manage to circumvent ministerial obstacles in time.

All this begs the question: "Whose culture?" In Cambodia, classical culture

was the exclusive right of gods, then god-kings and then kings. In the sixties, classical

dance was taken out of the Palace, while other forms such as lakhoan yike and lakhoan

bassac thrived among a new urban, ticket-paying audience.

Subsidized performances at the Bassac Theater and in the regions were plentiful,

and there were a plethora of private companies set up by impresarios for profit.

Cambodian artists traveled the world.

"Not a single person failed to return," says Hang Soth.

The people's right to culture, a concept heavily promoted during the Communist eighties,

brought new subsidies. Popular yike such as Tum Teav went on night after night for


But post-UNTAC, the impecunious government had other priorities and vestiges of the

old elitism returned. The Bassac's conflagration in 1994 brought destitution to the

artists. Two years earlier, the first post-war tour to the US returned minus six

dancers. Cultural Day was given at the Chaktomuk behind closed doors for an invitation-only


While for Hang Soth the increase in tourism signals a return to halcyon years, others

believe it threatens the very root of the culture and the quality of the dance.

"Artists will be asking 'Do you want the $5 dance, or the $10 dance?' "

says Chheng Pohn with heavy irony.

As Cambodia's most sacred dance, the Apsara should be off-limits, agrees MoCFA's

director of international cultural cooperation Ouk Lay. He declined to comment on

its recent incarnation as a supporting act to Raffles presenting Jose Carreras singing

"O Sole Mio" at Angkor Wat. This was the $1,500 dance, disturbed by the

clanking of knives and dinner glasses.

Arcane arguments about culture can lift the level of debate, but the lack of commitment

to public performance in general is confounding.

"We don't have the tradition for it," insists Ouk Lay, "besides which

we have no theater. Cambodians can't afford it ... we can't afford it."

Hang Soth isn't so fatalistic, but was forced to abandon a series of National Theater

performances once the numbers didn't add up. Did he try to acquire a sponsor? No,

he says, "Only foreigners get sponsors."

But it actually costs very little to mount performances here.

"Even a large repertory piece with sixty dancers costs only $600, including

PR, printing and advertising," says producer Fred Frumberg. "Two shows

a weekend over three months comes to about $14,000, and that's not including ticket


The government itself could collect this revenue if it stopped handing out hundreds

of free passes to functionaries and friends.

Now that the Chenla Theater and the Chaktomuk are up and running, the claims that

there are no theaters are redundant. The latter, though ostensibly a conference hall,

still functions as a theater under the control of the ministry. Most of the time

it's dark: the Ministry mounts a handful of official functions a year. Yet it has

no qualms about charging $1,500 a night in rent, well in excess of what its own performers

can afford and far more than the $150-to-$200 needed for electricity, technical staff,

security and staff.

"The figure can be reduced," says Hang Soth, but only on condition that

no tickets are sold. The French government afforded the full whack when putting on

a single yike, but the group mounting the modern play Kolab Pailin could not. They

paid $200 but sold no tickets, the revenue used "to help maintain the theater".

Frumberg would prefer the stage be given to all MoCFA performers free of charge.

If marketed properly, most performances will sell out, suggesting Cambodians want

access to their own culture and not just Khmer boy bands and karaoke.

Ex-UNESCO employee Suon Bunrith sees the issue as a moral imperative.

"We cannot depend on foreigners to provide our own culture, as essential a resource

as water. Khmer people should be doing that," he says. "I just wish the

government would do something responsible to generate funds."

ï Robert Turnbull is a freelance journalist who lives in Cambodia.


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