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International heebie-jeebies over the jeeb

We have more tension in our hands and fingers, because we dance with the spirits

An ancient ceremonial dance move has the Thai and Cambodian governments twisted all out of shape

Who owns the jeeb? That’s the question which further agitated Thailand and Cambodia right in the middle of political tensions over the disputed Preah Vihear temple two months ago. It’s a debate that may seem trivial next to the situation at the border, but which revealed just how fiery the nationalist sentiments on both sides are running. 

The jeeb is the graceful hand position where the thumb touches the index finger and the other three fingers are fanned out – a cornerstone of traditional ballet and shadow theatre in both Thailand and Cambodia. But in 2008, the jeeb was included under the umbrella of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Khmer shadow theatre, when they were registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. There they remained for three years, until August, when the new Thai Culture Minister Sukumol Kunplome declared that gaining official ownership of the jeeb, and the accompanying shadow plays, was a national priority.

“They are part of the Thai cultural heritage, so if another country has registered them, we have to find a solution,” she declared in the media, adding that the jeeb is used to promote Thai culture and it would be controversial if it was branded ‘Cambodian’.

While archeologists debate the true origin of the jeeb, and politicians squabble about who owns it, dancers on both sides of the border are quick to declare that the hand gesture wars are based on a false premise: there are actually two different types of jeeb; one for each nation.

To the untrained eye, the “Khmer” jeeb and the “Thai” jeeb both appear, well, pretty much the same – a fact which no doubt heightens the stakes of the battle. Because if Thailand succeeds in reclaiming the Cambodian jeeb that was registered with UNESCO, they will have effectively hoarded all the heritage.

Sam Sathya, a prominent 44-year-old Khmer dancer who teaches traditional ballet at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, is adamant that the hand gesture registered with UNESCO is a Cambodian one.

“The jeeb movement belongs to the Khmer people,” she told 7Days. “The difference between the Thai gesture and ours is that we have more tension in our hands and fingers, because we dance with the spirits. We keep our power in our body and our fingers.”

Her former teacher, Minh Kosny, concurs. In the 1960s, Minh Kosny danced in the Royal Ballet, and after a successful career, the 63-year-old rose up to become a Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

“These ballet dances were created at Angkor Wat at a time when there were no borders between Thailand and Cambodia. Thai people used to live in Cambodia at that time and the borders were extended to China,” she said.

“The Thai culture has its own identity, and the Khmer culture does too. We can’t use another identity. Although we have the same kinds of dance, we have different ways to express ourselves.”
Minh Kosny explained the numerous nuances within the pose.

“There are eight basic hand gestures in Cambodian dance,” she said. “The jeeb is one of them. And it can be used in different ways to express different things. For example, when the hand is placed before the mouth it means the girl is shy. It can also mean to laugh, to introduce ourselves, to pick a flower, to write, to make up eyebrows, to swim, and so on.”

On the other side of the border, prominent Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun is attempting to moderate the disagreement between the neighbours. The dancer said he believes the dispute to be a simple mix-up, inflamed by stubborn inter-governmental sabre-rattling.

“I think that the Thai jeeb belongs to Thailand, and the Cambodian jeeb belongs to Cambodia. Each one is different,” he said. “The government and related organisations are creating more conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, adding to present problems about the disputed territory, because the parties do not explain that the jeeb in Thai dance is different from Cambodia’s,” he said.

“The ambiguity creates misunderstanding and conflict. Thailand can register for the tangible heritage for the Thai jeeb but should not claim that the Cambodian jeeb, which was registered by Cambodia, belongs to Thailand. I still want to insist on the fact that the Thai jeeb and Cambodian jeeb are different.”

Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO representative for Cambodia, said that arguments like the fight for the jeeb are commonplace in countries which share a common history.

“We want to put it into perspective; the cultures of both countries are the results of centuries of dynamic changes. So it’s normal to find similar things in both cultures,” she said.

“The jeeb is only one hand gesture among about 4,500. In my opinion, the Thai Minister of Culture just wants to put the topic on top of the agenda, but if they want to register their own jeeb, they can do it.
They just have to ratify the convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity first.”

For most dancers, the fight is a frustrating side issue. Khmer and Thai dancers influenced each other centuries ago, and they continue to work together today.

Belle, a Khmer ballerina, said “We don’t need to say which of the two countries owns the jeeb. I have collaborated with Thai dancers before and we think as artists, not as countries. We don’t want to fight, just make art together.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHAKRIYA KHIEV

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