Prime Minister Hun Sen commends Cambodia’s UNESCO delegation for its successful efforts at lobbying for the Kingdom’s Kun Lbokator martial art to be inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list on November 29 in Rabat, Morocco.

The premier celebrated the inclusion of the ancient Cambodian martial art, commonly known as bokator, on the UNESCO list shortly after being informed by Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona, who led the Cambodian delegation attending the 17th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Morocco.

“During the 17th session on November 29, the committee ruled in favour of inscribing Kun Lbokator on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I have already sent all of the documents, including the video, to [your] Cabinet,” Sackona wrote to the prime minister.

The term Kun Lbokator is derived from the words “kun” for “martial art”, “bok” meaning “to pound”, and “tor” (also romanised as “tao”), which refers to the lion, the strongest carnivorous animal known to the ancient Khmer.

Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC), said that as a former national team athlete as well as the current leader of the Cambodian Kun Lbokator Federation – and as a lifelong promoter of the martial art – he was also celebrating the inclusion of Kun Lbokator on the UNESCO list.

“We have tried and worked hard for many years and now the souls of our ancestors have been revived and will be conserved at the global level,” he said.

According to the culture ministry, Kun Lbokator is a traditional Khmer martial art that has been deeply rooted in Cambodian society for centuries and continues to survive to this day, and that the carvings on the walls of the Angkorian temples are clear evidence of the long history in Cambodia of this martial arts practice.

“This glorious success is a testament to the love, care, effort, support and close cooperation between the culture ministry together with the Cambodia Kun Lbokator Federation and … masters and practitioners of Kun Lbokator,” the ministry said.

After Kun Lbokator was inscribed on the list, UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay congratulated the people of Cambodia, as did Sardar Umar Alam, UNESCO Representative to the Kingdom.

“UNESCO congratulates Cambodia on this great achievement in protecting Kun Lbokator through its inscription on the [Representative List of the] Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As a traditional sport, this inscription will promote Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage on the international stage for inter-cultural dialogue, social cohesion and mutual understanding to pave the way for future generations,” said Umar Alam.

After the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown on January 7, 1979, some of surviving masters and practitioners began to gather in groups to try to conserve and develop Kun Lbokator. In 2004, Cambodia established the Kun Lbokator Federation to recruit martial art masters, organise and document the traditional practices of Kun Lbokator in the community.

Through these efforts, Cambodia was able to prepare documents to apply for the inscription of Kun Lbokator on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2008.

The Kingdom submitted documents and evidence for a second time in 2017 to have Kun Lbokator included on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as local people and Kun Lbokator masters and communities were actively preserving traditions and customs of the martial art and arranging for successors in their localities.

Two previous attempts to submit Kun Lbokator to UNESCO were not successful, as the organisation required Cambodia to provide additional documents, so in 2019 Cambodia tried to prepare for the third time with help from experts and representatives of UNESCO in Phnom Penh.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the application was not completed until 2021. After UNESCO had time to review the application and consider the submission, they eventually voted to recognise and approve the inscription of Kun Lbokator on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity this week.

“Kun Lbokator is the property of the Khmer ancestors and the more than 16 million Cambodians and millions of Cambodians in the generations to come, who must preserve this heritage and now people all over the world will help with that mission. Therefore, this inscription has universal value for Cambodia in preserving the nation’s martial arts because it is the preservation of part of our Angkorian ancestral heritage,” said Chamroeun.

Chamroeun said now that Kun Lbokator has become recognised as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, Cambodia will have a lot of work to do and needs to work together in order to maintain and develop the sport as part of its national identity.

“We have more work to do and it is our ambition to promote Kun Lbokator training activities and educational activities by establishing Kun Lbokator education programmes in all educational institutions and all monasteries.

“Then, we have to promote it to all of the countries of the world so that they get to know the soul of our Kun Lbokator, which instils good virtues, good morals and provides great physical and mental education for all human beings living on this earth.

“The Kun Lbokator spirit is really the spirit of our ancestors and we must promote its conservation for development as well as promote development for its conservation.

“Let the souls of our Kun Lbokator ancestors live forever,” he said.