Cambodian Culture Essay Anthropology


1During my field research in Cambodia from May to September 2010, I took part in the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”1 that was realised by the Cambodian government in preparation for the annual “National Arts Festival”2 in 2011. Discussions were held during this workshop between governmental actors, university scholars and artists on the current challenges and norms in writing and directing theatre plays. I realised in the course of these discussions – and throughout my whole research in Cambodia – that the terms “art”3 and “culture” are strategically applied in the framework of the national cultural politics and are charged with corresponding meanings and values. This triggered several questions which I consider fundamental to understanding the processes and structures of how Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)4 is constituted in the Cambodian context. These questions are the following:

  1. What concepts of “art” and “culture” are used on the level of the Cambodian government?
  2. What is its role in the framework of Cambodian politics?
  3. Which values, norms and codes are attached to these concepts and who defines them?
  4. What are the consequences of this environment for artists and the artistic landscape in Cambodia?

2I propose that the negotiation, control and development of what is understood by art and culture in Cambodia influences essentially the way the concept of Intangible Cultural Heritage is understood, implemented and actively used by different actors. The reflections here are, therefore, fundamental for looking at and understanding the constitution of ICH on its different levels and in its various dimensions. I will take observations from the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop” as a basis for the treatment of the questions above.5 For my analysis, I will, firstly, introduce the theoretical approach, which I apply subsequently to analyse current perspectives and notions of art and culture in Cambodia. I will then put these perspectives into the framework of the politico-cultural environment in which the UNESCO 2003 Convention is implemented.

Culture and Concepts of Culture

3As the aim of this paper is to investigate the political use of the concept of art and culture in Cambodia, I consider it meaningful at this point to introduce the view of culture from which I emanate in this context as a cultural anthropologist. Throughout the historical development of cultural anthropology, scholars have extensively discussed the meaning, the purpose and the use of the culture concept within and beyond the discipline (see, for example, Kroeber/Kluckhohn 1952; Wagner 1981; Geertz 1983; Abu-Lughod 1991; Kuper 1999; Brumann 1999; Sahlins 1999; Müller 2003; also Lentz 2009, who discusses the suitability of the culture concept as a bridge between the disciplines of sociology and ethnology).6 These discussions have gone so far as to plead for the total renunciation of this concept (see, for example, Abu-Lughod 1991) because of the boundedness, homogeneity, coherence, stability, and structure which this concept allegedly implies. These attributes conflict with the constructivist approach that is held by many anthropologists today, which underlines the principal openness, dynamism, and the manifold breaks, conflicts and discrepancies that are inherent to such a system (Appadurai 2003).7 Other scholars, such as Brumann (1999) or Sahlins (1999), consider these criticisms a bit of a stretch. In their opinion, it would be better if anthropologists developed an approach to the culture concept that made allowance for current developments in its use on the international platform.

4Marshall Sahlins, in his article “Two or three things that I know about culture” (1999), stresses the enduring significance of the culture concept as an object of anthropological inquiry. He points out that the concept of culture is still of relevance, just because of the explicit use of this concept – in the sense of a closed, bounded and well defined, stable entity as it was once suggested by some anthropologists – by local and national actors around the globe in order to pursue their own political, social or other interests (Sahlins 1999:401-403). According to him, culture is increasingly being instrumentalised by different groups of actors for the means of cultural distinction, assertion or empowerment to gain autonomy in a world of rapid change and transition.8 Precisely because of this instrumentalisation, which he calls “modern culturalism” (1999:401, 415), he stresses the need to investigate the manifold use and interpretations of this concept around the globe. The aim is to understand the strategies, interpretations and positions that are at stake from the perspective of the respective groups who develop them. Lentz points out that culture comes to function as a short formula for a whole bundle of different phenomena, as a beneficial argumentative “Joker” (Lentz 2009:315, 20), which, according to the context, can embrace a wide range of different meanings or terms, such as “nation”, “ethnicity” or “race”. In this sense, the character of culture becomes “politically fractured and contested” (Sahlins 1999:406) and often disguises the “quest for power, material gain, resistance or a need of identity” (Sahlins 1999:407). Culture is used by different groups of people for various purposes and in various contexts according to individual interests, motivations and objectives:

What is called culture or tradition is strategically adaptable to the pragmatic situation, especially to the class interests of acculturated elites, even as it leaves individuals free to change their identity when it serves them. This is perhaps the main criticism of contemporary culture-talk: it is really instrumental, an ideological smokescreen of more fundamental interests, principally power and greed.
(Sahlins 1999:403)

5I consider it worthwhile to take over the position of Sahlins in this paper to examine the case of Cambodia, where “culture” is actively used by governmental actors to strengthen and legitimate their political ideologies. This counts especially as Cambodia emerges from decades of political upheavals – first and foremost the Khmer Rouge Regime (1975-1979), in which most of the Cambodian artists perished and many of the artistic testimonies were destroyed9 – and seeks to reformulate its national and cultural identity, as well as to gain political autonomy in an increasingly globalising world. In my opinion, investigating the use of the concept of culture is essential to understand these current processes of empowerment and identity building.

6It is then a question, as Lentz (2009:321) points out, of how we can investigate the strategic essentialisations of culture that take place across political reality, where culture becomes a discursive weapon and is incorporated into the language of social actors. Barth (2002:32), as a central representative of the constructivist approach to culture, expresses the need to “build accounts of cultural facts without prejudging pattern, eliding variation, or stereotyping ideas”, and to look at studies that “show how cultural images, knowledge, and representations are deployed, and sometimes created, by situated persons with purposes, acting in complex life situations” (Barth 2002:32). It is, therefore, useful to take this variety of strategic interpretations into account and explore how “culture” is understood and used by actors on the local and national level by those who will be the major players in the constitution of ICH in Cambodia. Like Schiffauer (1999; cf. Lentz 2009:319), I consider culture as a discursive arena of central values and institutions that are negotiated over and over again in the encounters of different groups of actors. In this study, I will investigate some of these central values that are attached to the concept of culture as it is used by governmental actors in Cambodia according to specific motivations and interests.

A Cambodian “Leitkultur”

7In the course of my field research in Cambodia, I realised that the concept of art and culture is influenced by the objectives of a small political and social elite. Cambodia’s society is characterized by a strong hierarchical organization, which has a tremendous effect on how people’s lives are structured and experienced. Most parts of Cambodian life are oriented according to a specific political and social classification system of which the king takes the highest rank, followed by a powerful political elite and the rest of the population on the lowest rank.10 Even if formally the king is the head of the state and is highly respected and venerated amongst the Cambodian people his authority to act is restricted by the constitution and he has, in fact, more representative functions (cf. Karbaum 2008:149). A constitutional monarchy on paper, the actual political system has heavy authoritarian traits, which appear, among others, in a lack of judiciary independence, in constricted freedom of opinion, freedom of press and freedom of assembly, and in corruption, as well as in political violence (LICADHO11 2007; cf. Karbaum 2008). A relatively small, but very strong, political elite, which is associated with different administrative bodies of the government, takes the major part of the political power and influences effectively economic, social and cultural development. I suggest in this paper that part of this political and social elite defines and codifies the concepts of art and culture, prescribes the norms and values that are attached to such concepts and controls its abidance. What is seen as the “right” culture and what is not, who practices the “right” culture and who does not, and how culture is to be preserved and developed is, therefore, widely determined and decided by a small and privileged group of people.

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Fig. 1: National Workshop on “Cambodian Performing Arts: 30 years of Revival and Development” (2009).

8This idea of a dominant or leading culture that is meant to serve as an orientation or standard for Cambodian society reminds one of Bassam Tibi’s term “Leitkultur”. However, while the political scientist Tibi introduced this term in 1998 to postulate a social consensus on values in Europe, his concept of culture was based on Western political ideals that have their source in cultural modernism.12 The term was later reproduced in the political debate in Germany for a claim of the integration of immigrants in Germany and, therefore, has a negative political connotation. In this context, Lammert, President of the German Bundestag at that time, said in an interview that the development of a collective identity in Europe needed political guiding principles which are understood as a joint fundament of values and convictions that is connected to joint cultural roots, to a joint history and joint religious traditions (Die Welt December 13, 2005).13 While in this context, the term “Leitkultur” is used to clearly distinguish German culture from other European cultures to preserve its national identity, I would like to apply this term in a slightly different context. Even if in Cambodia, the concept of a “Leitkultur” is also used as a strategy to differentiate and shield a dominant Cambodian culture from foreign influences, I will look in this paper primarily at the perception of a “Leitkultur” that is used to distinguish a dominant and elitist culture from other cultures within Cambodian society that are perceived as having minor value. What I would like to show in the following sections is that in the Cambodian case, an elitist Khmer14 “Leitkultur” is produced on the level of the state as a political strategy to build a national (cultural) identity that refers to a distant Cambodian past and has a considerable influence on the artistic landscape in the country.

The Glorious Period of Angkor as a Point of Reference

9In the imagination of the Khmer people, most artistic expressions, historic buildings and architectural wealth in Cambodia date back to the Angkor period, which is situated between the 9th and 15th centuries (Chandler 2008:35-89; Pich 1995:2; UNESCO 2002:3; Sam-Ang 2003b: 217). This time is commonly described as a “glorious” and “prosperous” period, in which the life of the Khmer people flourished and in which Cambodia’s greatest historical creations and innovations have their origins. A governmental report (MCFA15 2010c) that was distributed during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop” says in this regard:

Since the announcement of the Devaraja16 (God-King) religious belief to the 14th century, thousands of prestigious temples had been built continuously all over the Kingdom, which constituted the glorious Angkorean civilization.

10It is broadly believed that living artistic expressions from the Angkorian Period have not changed a great deal in almost 1000 years – much like the Cambodian proverb says, “Don’t choose a straight path. And don’t reject a winding one. Choose the path your ancestors have trod” (Chandler 2008:14). Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that these artistic expressions have undergone constant modifications since the Angkor period, due to political and religious changes in Khmer culture.17 However, these modifications have been broadly faded out by many Cambodians, first and foremost on the level of the government. Ancestors are seen as the guiding force in the preservation of Cambodian art forms18 and serve political actors as a legitimation to conserve and make use of ancient codes and traditions. Edwards (2007), Winter (2007) and Abbe (2008) have shown that the Angkorian Empire, with its creations and testimonies, was first glorified by the French protectorate in order to strengthen the latter’s political power in Indochina. The French created the image of an idealized and stereotyped Khmer civilization based on the assumption that “those who had lived in the Angkorean period had been the ‘true’ Khmers with the ‘authentic’ Khmer culture” (Sasagawa 2005:432). Khmer art, conserved in its pure and “traditional” form, was seen to go back to the ancient Angkorian Empire.

11The image of a glorious past was handed down to the Cambodian elite, and it still serves as a resource to reaffirm a Cambodian “cultural identity”. Thus, the Prime Minister in his opening speech to the “National Arts Festival” in 2010, referred to the Angkorian past and its potential to consolidate Cambodia’s power in the international world:

The royal government, in general, considers Khmer culture and civilization as Cambodian soul and identity because we believe that this illustrious culture and civilization has been created and developed under a creative and skilful mind of our ancestor genius and effort since the very early stage during the creation of our Cambodian people on this golden land, Cambodia. This great culture and civilization is a valuable treasure and an endless resource that we can use to develop and improve on any aspects and in any period of time. With the richness of our culture and civilization that has been handed down from the past, we manage to create and establish plenty of new things that help to raise and promote Cambodia’s fame to the rest of the world.
(Hun 2010)

12Later in his speech, he referred to ancient material and immaterial expressions of the Khmer people, such as the temples of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear, the Royal Ballet or the big shadow puppet theatre Sbek Thom, that are all believed to have been created during the time of Angkor. Significantly, all these historic buildings and artistic expressions have been promoted by the government to be nominated as World or Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.19 Khmer art forms, such as the Royal Ballet or the Sbek Thom, are understood by Hun Sen as expressions of the “creative and skilful mind” of the Khmer ancestors during the Angkor period. In another governmental report, “civilization” is defined as the “root of a nation” (MCFA, 2010c). The Prime Minister considers this “Khmer culture and civilization” as the “Cambodian soul and identity”.

13I suggest, therefore, that the Khmer artistic expressions and inventions of the Angkorian Empire are regarded by the government as the core of a Cambodian “Leitkultur”, which was introduced above. Culture in Cambodia is defined on the basis of this image of a “glorious” Angkorian past, which lays the ground for an elitist Khmer culture. The Cambodian government finds its legitimation for such a “Leitkultur” in the “genius and effort” of the Angkorian past. It is the fear of losing national pride in an increasingly globalising world that brings dominant foreign influences to the country (MCFA 2010c). The Cambodian “Leitkultur” serves, on the one hand, to promote a national cultural identity by reconnecting the country and its people to its “glorious” past, especially after the socially disruptive period of the Khmer Rouge, and, on the other hand, it should strengthen Cambodia’s position in an international arena of increasing competition. A report from the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop” (MCFA 2010c) says in this regard:

Saying that “I love my nation” does not yet suffice to mean that “I have a national spirit”. The real national spirit exists only when we know clearly about our national civilization and use it to develop the country. When we have it, we can be called real nationalists [nation lovers]. So the recognition and cultivation of national civilization is a major factor at these present and future stages.

14With the listing of Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, the Royal Ballet and the big shadow puppet theatre Sbek Thom as UNESCO cultural heritage of Cambodia, this national identity based on the Angkorian past is acknowledged by the international community and Cambodia’s cultural policy actively promoted. That the Royal Ballet takes a primordial role in this produced Cambodian “Leitkultur” and considerably influences the artistic landscape in Cambodia, I will show in the following section.

The Royal Ballet as a Role Model for a Cambodian “Leitkultur”

15The first Cambodian element that was nominated a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003 was the Royal Ballet. Since that time, and even before, the Royal Ballet and, in particular, the Apsara dance (one of the most popular dances within the Royal Ballet),20 have been promoted by the government as identity symbols of Cambodia, together with the temple of Angkor Wat (cf. Sam-Ang 2003b: 223). This becomes evident as receptions for high ranking officials and political meetings are many times accompanied by performances of the Royal Ballet (often in front of Angkor Wat). According to a governmental actor (pers. com. with a representative of the General Department of Administration and Finance, MCFA, August 18, 2009), all rights to the Royal Ballet have been reserved by the Cambodian government, more precisely the MCFA, since the Khmer Rouge period. This means that all commercial activity and economic use of the dance and its name is controlled by this institution. In this way, seeing its central national symbol from the Angkorian Empire being jeopardised with commercialisation and devaluation, the Cambodian government has put a control system for over 100 dancing groups in Siem Reap in place that consists of personal IDs and group licences (pers. com. with a representative of the Siem Reap Department of Culture and Fine Arts, June 11, 2010).

16What made the Royal Ballet so prominent as a political symbol and what are the interests of the government with regard to this dance form from the Angkorian Period? I would like to illustrate these questions with observations that I made during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”.

17It was conspicuous that in the course of this workshop, dance was at the centre of discussions on Cambodian performing arts, while other art forms were treated only secondarily. The Royal Ballet, which is also called “classical dance”, was described by governmental actors as follows:

What makes the classical dance so special is the use of body and hand movement to express feelings. Classical dance is supernatural. As a heavenly dance, or god/king dance, as a god property, it has spiritual beauty. The dancer is the god messenger, who is so pure and refined.
(Secretary of State, MCFA, July 29, 2010)
Classical dance wins people’s hearts and wins against nature also. It is a dance which is against nature, as hands and feet are excessively bent, the back curved and extended extra with classical dance. And even walking is different in a very artistic way. Classical dance is different from nature and more beautiful. Dance is very gentle, refined and slow in Cambodia. It is different from Western dance.
(Representative of the Department of Performing Arts, MCFA,
July 29, 2010)

18Several notions are of interest in these statements. Classical dance is considered by these governmental actors as “special” because of its artistic refinement and its spiritual connection to the venerated god-kings during the time of Angkor. As god messengers, these dancers are regarded as “supernatural” – and even “against nature”, “pure and refined” and their movements are valued as “artistic”.

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Fig. 2: Apsara dance, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap (2009).

19There are many stories told about “classical dance”. “Classical dance” was originally called the Royal Ballet, robam preah reachea trop, which means “dances of royal wealth” (Fletcher 2001:306). It is believed to have originated in the Angkorian Period between the 9th and 15th centuries,21 when it is said to have been performed exclusively for the Royal Family. Accordingly, its audience was a highly distinguished one, excluding the general population from this kind of entertainment. Moreover, as it apparently served religious ceremonies and was connected to the gods, it is still considered sacred today. Classical dance is imagined as a performance of celestial dancers (female servants of deities) or temple dancers who were dedicated to deities as offerings. Their role was to perform for the gods or sacred kings who were seen as messengers of peace from earth to heaven (MCFA 2010c). Hence, they are seen by the government as “dancers of peace and messengers of moral education and virtue for the sake of happiness and peace for the Khmer people” (MCFA 2010c). A report on “Dance in Cambodia” (MCFA 2010c) that was distributed by the government during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop” says:

Khmer dance is an art for both religious beliefs and an ideal society. The dance performance improves the understanding of nature and human society and indirectly reflects education, morals, virtuous behaviour, virtue, mentality, and knowledge in order to purify the inner mind of people and remove the immoral behaviour so that society will be in good order in accordance with a defined ideal.

20What is this educational, moral and virtuous behaviour that an artist should reflect in the perspective of the state? What is this immoral behaviour that should be removed? This subject was highly debated during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”. A governmental report (MCFA 2010d) says that the main criteria for a good artist are:

Honour and dignity revealed through the righteous moral implementation of each artist. It can be shown also through the honesty, truth and justice that happen within any action and circumstance, such as in writing, composing, choreographing, directing, moving, language using, behaviour, costume, and make-up. Artists’ misbehaviour and inappropriate attitude give a bad effect to themselves as well as to their society. As we know, art is a two faces weapon, so we artists have to pay a lot of attention to all of our output/work. If we love art, we must respect and follow the artist morality strictly.

21According to a representative of the Royal University of Fine Arts (July 28, 2010), a playwright can be a “poisoner”, who says something that gives a “bad effect to society”. A great author, however, is somebody who teaches and educates society and reveals social problems, such as corruption, domestic violence, insecurity, drug abuse, or human trafficking. To illustrate the role of an artist, he cited the German physicist and writer Lichtenberg: “The main mission of a writer was bringing truthfulness to the human, teaching the human and educating the human.”

22In the perspective of a Secretary of State of the MCFA (July 28, 2011), however, the truth has to be revealed “in the right way”, which means only the truth that does not harm society (e. g. with fighting or arguments), the truth “that educates the people not to do something bad”. In this context, another governmental actor pointed out:

Public performance is dangerous, because all art forms have their good and bad side. Art is a two faces weapon. You cannot use bad words. I have the concern that during shows on TV, art sometimes has no qualified standard: sometimes actors say something bad about politics or the Prime Minister. How can one stop that, because everybody watches?
(Secretary of State, MCFA, July 28, 2010)

23Art works in the eyes of the government should “educate and promote solidarity, nationalism and the art loving sense to our Cambodian audience in order to preserve our valuable cultural heritage” (MCFA 2010d). And human resources in the art field have to agree with the Cambodian governmental policy (MCFA 2010d.). From this perspective, the moral behaviour is to educate society to conform to the national ideals, which is considered by the state as the “truth”, to promote nationalist behaviour in reflecting honour and dignity as a Cambodian and to support the government and its actors in word and action. Moral standards are politically tinged.

24In this regard, classical dance is connected to all three elements of Cambodia’s official policy and slogan: “nation – religion – king”. As celestial dancers to the gods, classical dancers are strongly attached to religion;22 as a court dance from the Angkor period, classical dance reflects “royal wealth”; and by providing moral education and virtues that correspond to the national ideals of the government, it is considered powerful enough as a political instrument to promote a nation in happiness, peace and unity. Additionally, with its origins in and its symbolical connection to the Angkor period, it is deeply rooted in the “glorious” past of the Khmer people and revitalises with its performance the power and “genius” of that time. I suggest, therefore, that the Cambodian government uses classical dance as an artistic and moral role model to educate Cambodian artists and society according to its national ideals. It represents the core of a constructed Cambodian “Leitkultur” that goes back to Angkor, and defines the norms and values that are attached to it. These norms and values are religious faith, loyalty to the kingdom and to the nation, moral behaviour – in the way the government defines it – as well as artistic purity and “refinement”. Accordingly, Sam-Ang, a Cambodian musicologist and adviser to the government, said in his publication “Cultural Policies of Cambodia” (2003b: 222):

Cambodia endows a rich culture. There are royal dance or court dance, peasant dance or folk dance, and dances of the ethnic minorities. Although each of the aforementioned forms is significant in its own right among the relevant groups, only the royal dance or court dance is considered the national culture of Cambodia.

25This privileged status of classical dance is also reflected in its name. During the Lon Nol regime, when Cambodia abolished the monarchy (it was re-institutionalised in 1993), the government of Cambodia changed the name of the Royal Ballet to robam kbach boran khmer, literally meaning “Khmer dance of the ancient style”, or simply “classical dance” (Fletcher 2001:306). The name “classical dance” is still actively used by the Cambodian government today. With this linguistic change, according to Fletcher (2001:306), the Lon Nol regime intended to remove any reference of the dance with a royal past. But in my opinion, the term “classical” is also consciously chosen with regard to the high identification of classical dance as a living representation, or the way it is now being reproduced, from the Angkorian Period. As explained above, classical dance is perceived by governmental actors as of high rank due to its spiritual value, moral character and artistic refinement, and it is seen as a living representation with lasting significance of the time of Angkor. The artistic expression of classical dance is considered to be harmonious, elegant, “refined”, and typical for Khmer art. As such, it has been revived and preserved by the government as a classical model or standard for Cambodian art forms in general. Accordingly, a Secretary of State of the MCFA (July 29, 2010) pointed out, “The word ‘classic’ means perfect, nothing needs to be changed. We better help to preserve this tradition”. With the proclamation as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003, and the following integration into the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2008, its outstanding value and image as a role model and identity symbol within Cambodian cultural policy was consolidated and internationally acknowledged.

26In the following section, I would like to demonstrate the importance of this role model and its international recognition for the Cambodian government within its national policy, and the consequences this has for the artistic landscape of Cambodia.

Artistic Elite versus “Amateurs”

27Burridge and Frumberg show in their recent publication (2010; cf. Heywood 2008:122-123) that national classical dancers were and still are thoroughly selected at an early age according to their outstanding talent. They are individually trained by “master” teachers, originally at the dancing school of the Royal Palace. As they are part of a privileged artistic group, they are promoted, according to the high standard and quality of the state, first and foremost in the complex dance movements that in artistic language are called “basic dance movements”.23 According to Heywood (2008:76), it was Queen Sisowath Kossamak and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi who brought classical dance to “ordinary Cambodian people” and “to the world”. In 1981, as part of a governmental “policy of revival and reconstruction” (Norodom 2010:3), it was integrated into the teaching program of the national School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.24 When Princess Buppha Devi was Minister of Culture and Fine Arts (1998-2003), she promoted it to be proclaimed a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.25 The national classical dance troupe, the “Cambodian Royal Ballet”, now performs primarily for high ranking officials and represents Cambodia on the international platform. The Secondary School of Fine Arts (SSFA) and the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh are the two national institutions for the training of classical dance for the public. These state institutions are considered “professional” and “with high esteem” (Sam-Ang 2003b: 221).

28It is notable that classical dance and its basic dance movements have had a significant influence on other art forms that were or are practiced at the RUFA and SSFA, for example, folk dancing, the mask dance Lakhaon Khol or the big shadow puppet theatre Sbek Thom. Interviews with members from different Sbek Thom groups in Cambodia during the 2010 Cambodian Youth Arts Festival26 have shown that the performance of Sbek Thom by dancers of the national Department of Performing Arts or the RUFA is strongly influenced by the basic movements of classical dance. A representative of the Department of Performing Arts said in his speech during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop” (July 29, 2010), that to make the choreography of a folk dance “unique”, dancers have to initially study the “real” habits of Cambodian people in the provinces and, as a second step, the “true movement” is then combined with the basic (classical) dance movement of the RUFA.

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Fig. 3: Classical Dance Performance, National Workshop on Cambodian Performing Arts (2009).

29I conclude that in national institutions such as the RUFA and SSFA, Cambodia educates and trains an artistic elite based on the codes of classical dance. These codes of classical dance are constitutive for the standard model and national ideal of a Cambodian “Leitkultur”. With the shift of classical dance from the palace to the people, I suggest that the government pursues the goal to educate the Cambodian citizens according to the moral standards and ideals of the state. Hence, the RUFA and SSFA take on the role of transmitting these national codes and standards to the artistic community and, with their performances, to the whole population and “to the world”. Classical dance movements are regarded as elements of “refinement” and sophistication, as elements to bring Cambodian art forms and Cambodia’s “civilisation” to perfection. Other art forms are evaluated and rated on the basis of these elitist norms and values and are graded on a scale. As a result, in Cambodia, there is no democracy and plurality in the artistic landscape in which all art forms would have the same quality and are regarded as equal. Art forms are judged in relation to classical dance and its values – religious virtue, purity and refinement.

Reproducing Social Stratification

30During the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”, a differentiation was made by a governmental actor (a representative from the Department of Performing Arts, MCFA, July 29, 2010) between dances from the “palace people” and dances from the “ordinary people”. The statement on classical dance from the “palace people” has already been given above; folk dance – a dance form that in the classification system of the government originates from “ordinary people” – was characterised by the same actor as follows:

People who make dance in the provinces have no knowledge about dance basics; they interpret movements from nature. […] If you make choreography of folk dance, find the roots of a dance: nature, people, belief of the people, […] in folk dance, mostly the movements come from reality and the people. […] It is a very real and very raw movement in the provinces. […] [with folk dance] reveal the truth of the community where the dance comes from; don’t put too artistic.
(Representative from MCFA, July 29, 2010)

31According to this statement, folk dance is seen as connected to nature, to belief and to the “reality” of the people in the provinces. From the perspective of this governmental actor, the people who make dance “in the provinces” have “no knowledge” about classical dance basics and their movements are described as “very raw” and not “too artistic”. According to Sam-Ang (1987:1), folk dances are “solely of peasant origin and use” and are performed in religious ceremonies and rituals in the provinces; they accompany social events like birth, marriage and death and are an integral part of agricultural activities. He describes the role of folk dance as follows:

[Folk dances] serve to increase the communal sense of security. They give emotional release. They satisfy the desire to communicate [with] ancestors and other spirits. They provide spiritual satisfaction. They bring good luck and prevent disaster.
(Sam-Ang 1987:1)

32While the Royal Ballet is perceived by the government to be connected to the “palace people” and their spiritual needs, folk dance is believed to have originally served the spiritual and social needs of the rural population. It accompanies daily life and the life circle of the people, and serves as spiritual support and guidance during work time and crises (Sam-Ang 1987:1). According to Sam-Ang (1987:1-2), for the people in the provinces, who are broadly dependent on their agricultural activities, it serves as a source of energy and force and promotes social cohesion. While classical dance was originally learnt in royal and national institutions, folk dance was transmitted and learned within the boundaries of family and rural society. This is partly linked to the fact that on the rural level, no practical artistic education is available in public schools.27 To receive a qualified education at a national school or university, artists have to travel to and live in Phnom Penh, which most people in the rural area cannot afford. According to Sam-Ang (1987:12), as folk dance in the provinces is seen first and foremost as an activity for religious devotion, recreation and social entertainment, people do not necessarily strive for professionalism and elaboration of their artistic skills. In the educational institutions of the government on the other hand, scholars aspire to develop and formalise their artistic abilities and the aesthetics of their art in order to create a national “educational standard” (Sam-Ang 1987:10).

33The governmental statement on folk dance (above) shows that, in the perspective of the government, the high ranking and royal classical dance that epitomises the moral guidelines, religious virtues and artistic refinement of a Cambodian political and artistic elite and, as such, represents Cambodia in the international arena, is opposed to the lower ranking folk dance that represents the art of the “ordinary people”, performed predominantly in the rural areas. Folk dance as an art of the “ordinary people” is regarded by the government as artistically less elaborate than the “professional art” (selepak atchip) that is practiced within the national and royal institutions in Phnom Penh. It represents the art of the “peasant”. According to a Secretary of State from the MCFA (pers. com. July 23, 2010), art that is produced outside the control of the government – that means in NGOs, associations and in the provinces – is called “amateur art” or “non-professional art”, in Khmer selapak mohatchun. He said about the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”:

There is the retraining on writing and staging drama of the mass art. You know mass art? Mass art, it means the art of the people, the art of the amateur. We ask the provinces, the offices of the provinces, cultures, various cultures of the provinces, to ask, each province, three people, three people from the grassroots level, from the people, from the mass!

34This statement makes explicit, that the art of the “amateur”, of the “ordinary people”, of the “provinces” or of the “grassroots level” is seen as of minor value to the elitist art of the court and the national institutions. It is regarded as “mass art” as opposed to the “refined” elitist art. According to Sam-Ang (1987:15), performances from the University of Fine Arts are “much more complicated” than the ones performed by non-professionals. He associates this “simplification” with “a lack of knowledge and understanding of the dance” (Sam-Ang 1987:15) on the one hand, and “that those steps, movements and gestures are too difficult for them to learn” (Sam-Ang 1987:15.), on the other. “Non-professional”, in the eyes of the government, carries a touch of subordination and “non-professional art” is systematically devaluated. The label “governmental”, however, “provides a higher esteem to individuals who wear it" (Sam-Ang 2003b: 221).

35Additionally, folk dance is associated with the belief in nature and spirits and subscribed to by the people in the provinces. In its report, “Dance in Cambodia” (MCFA 2010c), the government described “traditional dance” (which is used in this case synonymously with folk dance) as follows:

The traditional dance refers to all dances performed in the traditional ceremonies of Khmer or tribal minorities living in different regions in the Kingdom of Cambodia since a long time ago, whether they have the same practice or not. Traditional dances always originate from where nature influences people and makes them believe that there are spirits, ghosts, devils and soil, forest, valley, mountain owners/possessors, etc.

36As such, the belief in nature and the spirits by “Khmer or tribal minorities” is opposed to the country’s main religion, Buddhism, that is practiced by the majority of the Khmer people in Cambodia and is represented by the high ranking and elitist classical dance.

37We can conclude that the “art of the ordinary people” is considered by state actors to be the counterpart of a dominant, elitist and ideal Cambodian “Leitkultur”. The national institutions for the administration of art, culture and religion in Phnom Penh ultimately appear in this process as the artistic and spiritual centre that emanates to its margins, which are the provinces, NGOs, associations, and other actors that operate independently from the government.

38As a consequence, several identity categories have been created that reproduce existing social stratification on the artistic level: The art of an artistic elite in the Royal Palace and national institutions, such as the RUFA and SSFA, is opposed to the art of the “ordinary people”; professional artists to non-professional artists; city to province; Khmer people to ethnic or “tribal” minorities; and Buddhism to the belief in nature spirits. Art forms, social status, artistic skills, origins, regions, and religious beliefs are ranked on a scale that determines the status of the art and the artists. A strong political and artistic elite controls the artistic landscape of the country and decides who is included or excluded from the leading artistic community. The gap which already exists between the rural and urban population due to lower living standards and restricted access to information, education and economic benefits in the provinces is reproduced and reinforced by this artistic hierarchization and rural communities become even more marginalised. “Amateur artists” with their “mass art” – those who are numerically the majority of artists in Cambodia and are, hence, hard to control – are considered as a potential danger to the national ideal of a standard model “Leitkultur”. They are, therefore, “re-educated” to follow the course of the government. Workshops, such as the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”, serve to train these non-elitist artists with respect to elitist values, norms and codes of the state. Society is trained to think in terms of an artistic elite and a stratified artistic landscape. This national quality rating system finds its point of culmination and public representation during the “National Arts Festival”. In the course of this festival, artists are judged and rated with scores by a governmental jury in their correspondence to the national codes of art. Performances are accompanied with governmental advice and instructions. A Secretary of State from the MCFA pointed out in an interview (pers. com. July 23, 2010):

Because we would like to correct those people, you know, the amateur, who always entertain or perform comic scenes on television, everywhere with the people, we would like to educate those people to do good. […] You can say that critics… les critics d’art, critics of arts, because we believe that the festival is a school or a class.

39The festival ends with the celebration of the “National Cultural Day”, in which the most outstanding theatre works of the festival are awarded with medals28 by the government in front of the public and government officials, most notably the Prime Minister Hun Sen. Criteria for the award are similar to the “civil servant honourable awarding” system (MCFA 2010d): responsible and moral working behaviour, creativity, management, national and legal loyalty, and cooperation with the government. As such, the accumulation of social and political merits in order to serve the national ideal, which exists for civil servants, is reproduced on the artistic level. Artists are educated to think in hierarchical terms and to serve the state for its political goals.

40In which way artists themselves respond to this system in the end, whether they play the game or have the opportunity to oppose to it, is still an object of inquiry and has to be further investigated in the ongoing research. It can, however, already be said that the majority of national artists depends on the government for their employment. They are, therefore, generally obliged to follow this system if they do not want to compromise their careers or livelihoods (cf. Shapiro 2010:114). Additionally, this system gives them the rare opportunity to be trained by highly respected artists and for exchanges with other artists. Only a few artists in independent associations and organisations have support from external donors and opt to distance themselves from the governmental system in order to engage in more social and artistic projects that are detached from national politics – insofar as this is possible (cf. Shapiro 2010:114).

Art as a Professional Trade

41Sam-Ang (1987:7) stated that in the late-1950s or early-1960s, a group of teachers created a (folk) dance department in the National Conservatory of Fine Arts (today’s Department of Performing Arts in the MCFA) and in the University of Fine Arts (today’s RUFA). According to him, the majority of folk dances that can be seen today is the result of reproduction by members of these institutions. Scholars had set out to the different provinces of Cambodia during that time to research existing folk dances and other performing art forms and had subsequently modified them “to bring these traditions up to the universal standard” (Sam-Ang 1987:8) of the university. Sam-Ang (1987:10) writes:

Once the Khmer agreed upon and valued the movement, they worked day and night to promote their traditional art forms, namely folk dance, mask dance, shadow play, yike […], bassac […] and so on, to increase quality of the traditional values. For example, they worked to correct the improper wording in the songs and narrations to suit the educational standards of the country. They have improved music, song, movement, gesture, costume, decor, lighting, and sound systems. They have elevated the aesthetic of the art to a high standard.

42Traditional folk dances, as well as other performing art forms, were appropriated and reworked to correspond to the “high standard” of the artistic, normative and educational codes of the National Conservatory of Fine Arts and University of Fine Arts, respectively. They were reproduced as “refined”, standardized and “professional” versions to bring a newly constructed “traditional art to people of every class, occupation, and region across the country” (Sam-Ang 1987:10). Additionally, “folklore troupes” were sent abroad “representing Cambodia to participate in world festivals and conferences” (Sam-Ang 1987:8). “Old themes” that were considered inappropriate were changed to “suit either the purely artistic or the didactic and political contexts that were necessary at the time” (Sam-Ang 1987:14). In his more recent work, “Cultural policies of Cambodia”, Sam-Ang (2003b: 217) called “Khmerization” the historical process of adapting a new religion to the existing one and making it suitable for the “Khmer taste”. This term is also suitable in the context of appropriating “peasant” art forms to the national ideals that draw on “ancient Khmer” traditions and values from the Angkor Period. In this case, folk dances that had once been performed in a religious and social framework in the provinces were taken out of their original context and were charged with new meanings and values – first and foremost technical excellence, attractiveness to the audience and political correctness – to make them suitable for stage presentation, concert halls and the professional artistic “trade” inside and outside the country:

Dances that depict centuries of the Khmer’s struggle and other folklore have been studied and performed as a refined art. People find dances interesting primarily because of their good presentation, decor, pleasing musical accompaniment and the new original work.
(Sam-Ang 1987:8)
It is seen, then, that here [in the University of Fine Arts] the casual practice of peasants is conducted intensively at a professional level, and a career in folk dance is accepted as a professional trade.
(Sam-Ang 1987:8)

43I suggest that the government produces a high standard Cambodian “Leitkultur” in its national institutions to sell it as a marketing strategy to the international community and to promote it as a professional artistic trade. The fundament is the “traditional values” of the Angkor period that are enriched with current political goals. Artistic expressions, such as the Royal Ballet or the big shadow puppet theatre Sbek Thom, are now being transformed and adapted to the current political strategy. According to the “Action Plan for Culture and Fine Arts in 2010” (MCFA 2010b), the national policy foresees:

In order to take part in implementing the Rectangular Strategy29 of the 4th term Royal Government and to contribute to the development of the national economy in this globalization age, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has decided to use the potential of the Cambodian Culture as a power to encourage Cambodians to make use of their intelligence to transform national cultural properties to become a base for economic industry through developing new products of the cultural industry for society according to the policy, goal and cultural goal [of the MCFA].

44This cultural and political goal is, following the Prime Minister in his speech during the closing ceremony of the “National Arts Festival” in 2010 (Hun 2010), to create a “Khmer Culture Promoting Centre” and to

Use the best out of tangible and intangible heritage in developing an economy that agrees with the tourism promoting policy “Cambodia Kingdom of Wonder” and introduce a new vision of “Cambodia Kingdom of Culture”.

45By standardising Cambodian art forms to a high “universal” level, the aim of the government is apparently to create new cultural industries and to compete in artistic and economic terms with the international community, first and foremost the (Southeast) Asian region. In this regard, a representative from the government (Secretary of State, Council of Ministers, July 28, 2010) said during the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”:

This workshop is not only for the festival in 2011, but it is also about competition between Asian countries. We need qualified people to do it. We have to improve our knowledge, search for more information, learn more things, and develop our abilities.

46The Cambodian “Leitkultur” is produced to promote economic development through commercialisation in a tourism context and is used as propaganda for the current national policy. Art, therefore, becomes instrumentalised in order to realise the vision of a “Kingdom of Culture” and “Kingdom of Wonder” and to consolidate Cambodia’s power on an international scale.

47The consequences for those artists who operate under the control of the state are restricted artistic freedom and creativity, as they are required to correspond to the national codes and standards. Art forms are reworked, standardized and fixed on the basis of a national ideal that – in the imagination of the government – goes back to Angkor. Personal inspiration from the artists and further development are largely omitted; the artistic development is stagnating. Artists who do not correspond to such a system are dismissed from it and are penalised in terms of administrative and financial support, as I have shown in the example of the big shadow puppet theatre Sbek Thom (Eggert 2010). Those who correspond to it are rewarded with an upgrade of their social and political prestige. It must be pointed out, however, that the majority of Cambodian artists will hardly ever receive a status that can enable them to enter into the artistic elite and contribute to shaping the artistic policy of the country, as this position is reserved for a small group of well connected governmental actors (cf. Karbaum 2008).

48Artists, associations and organisations who work independently from the government have more freedom to use their expertise for artistic development, but they face criticism, admonishments, denunciation, and penalties (Shapiro 2010:113; pers. com. with representatives from independent art associations, May 25, 2009, July 2, 2010 and August 5, 2010). In addition, they are not supported by the government either administratively, financially or prestigiously. Financial resources from and support by the government are generally scarce for projects in the field of living art and culture. Most of the budget within the MCFA is still dedicated to tangible cultural heritage, such as temples or other historic buildings. Moreover, according to Sam-Ang (2003b: 229), the performance of private institutions is tagged with a “less prestigious label”. The lack of governmental support can be a disadvantage for independent groups and individuals, especially if they are excluded from governmental promotion projects such as the ones within the 2003 Convention. Even when performing tours within or outside the country, the government might refuse to provide the necessary authorisation for travelling and performing (cf. Eggert 2010:12). However, considering artistic freedom and remuneration, if independent artists, associations or organisations have the necessary international support in finance and management, they are certainly in an advantageous position compared to national artists, who have to obey and act according to the governmental system while receiving only insufficient financial remuneration and support.


49In this paper, I have covered concepts of art and culture on the level of the Cambodian government in order to investigate the politico-cultural environment in which the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is implemented. Using the example of the “National Amateur Play Writing and Directing Workshop”, I have shown that concepts of art and culture are systematically created, defined and controlled through a discursive field of a political and artistic elite that is powerful enough to manipulate the Cambodian artistic community and society. By looking at governmental actors and analysing their motivations and interests in the local, national and international arena, I came to the following conclusions.

50The concept of art and culture in Cambodia is attached to the notion of a political and social elite which defines and codifies this concept, prescribes the norms and values that are attached to it and controls its abidance. The Cambodian government promotes a Khmer “Leitkultur”, a dominant or leading culture, as a moral standard for the Cambodian society that is rooted in alleged traditional values and convictions of a distant Khmer past. Governmental actors find their legitimation for such a Khmer “Leitkultur” in the Angkorian Period, and the glorification of its creations and innovations serves to celebrate and revive the “genius and effort” of the Khmer people from that time.

51The Royal Ballet or classical dance, which reflects the moral, artistic and religious standards of the state, is regarded by the government as a role model for this Cambodian “Leitkultur” and defines the norms and values that are attached to it: religious faith, loyalty to the kingdom and to the nation, moral behaviour, artistic purity, and “refinement”. In its national artistic laboratories, such as the RUFA, the SSFA and the Department of Performing Arts, the government trains an artistic and “professional” elite who transmits these elitist norms and values to the artistic community, to the people and to the world. Other art forms are evaluated and rated on the basis of these codes and are graded on a scale. As a result, different art forms in Cambodia are not regarded or treated as equal. Art forms are judged in relation to classical dance and its elitist values.

52The art of the “ordinary people”, as opposed to the elitist, royal and urban “Leitkultur”, is considered as artistically less elaborate and performed by “nonprofessional” artists or in the provinces. It is associated with the daily life of the rural people or of Khmer or ethnic minorities and with their belief in nature and nature spirits. Using this classification system, the government creates social, political and artistic identity categories that reproduce the social stratification on the artistic level. Artists are ranked according to their professional skills, origin, national loyalty, and religious beliefs. A strong political elite decides on inclusion or exclusion of artists to the elitist group. Artists who correspond to the political system are rewarded, others are underprivileged or dismissed from the governmental system.

53The image of a collective Khmer past, that is reflected in the leading Khmer “Leitkultur”, is consciously promoted by the state to create a national (cultural) identity, a national pride, to equip Cambodia and its people for the artistic, economic and political competition in an increasingly globalised world. In its national institutions and during national workshops and festivals, the government re-educates and fixes art forms according to an “elevated” national standard that represents the educational, artistic and political ideals of the state – first and foremost, technical excellence, attractiveness to the audience and conformity with political goals. As a consequence, artistic development through artistic freedom, personal inspiration and creativity is largely inhibited and restricted to artists who manage to operate outside the influence of the government. Their performance, however, is regarded by the government as of lower rank and prestige.

54This political concept of an elitist Khmer “Leitkultur” is confirmed, reproduced and promoted with an international certification by UNESCO's heritage nomination program. Cambodia aspires to create an international reputation on the basis of its Angkorian past and to consolidate its autonomy and power in an international (and especially Asian) arena of political and artistic competition. In which way this cultural policy is used to distract from the inconvenient Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which actually brings to justice crimes of the Khmer Rouge terror regime, and in which way it should serve as a means of reconciliation to this historical past, still has to be examined. The investigation of further heritage nominations to UNESCO – for example, the art of improvised story telling chapei, which is said to have been used for political propaganda during the Khmer Rouge – might shine more light on this issue.

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