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Artists pave way for peace with Thais

Cheymongkol Chalermsukjitsri talks about his plans to bring Cambodian bands to Surin in Thailand. Photo by: Soluy Hansen

PLANS to extend artistic links with Thailand after recent cross-border spats were hammered out by artists, rap performers, cultural experts and arts organisations in Phnom Penh at the weekend.

They hope to rebuild ties and peace between Cambodians and ethnic Khmer people living in Thailand  through concert exchanges.

Arts associations in both count-ries would work together to ensure  cultural exchanges rather than relying on formal diplomatic links, Cambodian Living Arts founder Arn Chorn Pond said.

He came up with the idea after visiting Thailand’s Surin province  last March and talking with his Thai counterpart Cheymongkol Chalerm-sukjitsri, who preserves Khmer culture there through his presidency of the Language and Culture Associat-ion of Surin province.

Arn Chorn Pond said: “Mr Cheymongkol heard that we had been bringing our young artists to perform in the United States.

“He said we could jump the ocean to perform over there, but why not come to Surin, which shares a border with Cambodia and where many people still practise Khmer culture?”

People in northeastern provinces of Thailand such as Surin, Sisaket and Buriram shared Khmer ancestry, still spoke the language and felt connected to Cambodian culture, Arn Chon Pond said.

So he felt it was time for all artists to join hands with him to jump over the Dangrek mountains straddling the Cambodia-Thai border to exchange art performances.

“Art has no boundaries,” Arn Chorn Pond said. “We want to rebuild the connection between Khmer people here and Khmer people living in Surin, Sisaket, and Buriram provinces.

“We can see that art is a great way to make that reconnection.”

Arn Chon Pond hopes the connection will benefit Khmer people living on both sides of the border.

CLA hosts a Cambodian Youth Arts Festival every two years, which he hopes will bring together artists and maestros from both countries to share their creativity.

And Arn Chorn Pond is convinced that, with the goodwill and support of the artistic community, this goal can be achieved.

“In Cambodia, we would like to host concerts in Pailin province, and Samlot or Sampov Loun district, where former Khmer Rouge supporters live, so people who were separated from one another have a chance to watch the concert. We would like to use art as the bridge to build peace.”

Cheymongkol Chalermsukjitsri, who lives in Surin, says Khmer people of both countries lost their links after the northeastern provinces were transferred to the Thai government by French colonialists about 1907, when the border lines were drawn up.

Now, he wants Khmer people living in both countries to actively reconnect to keep their traditions alive in Thailand.

“The indigenous Kroeng cannot speak their own language any more, so they have already lost their own culture. Because Khmer Surin people have a strong fundamental culture, our culture has been lost more slowly than the Kroeng.

“But it will disappear, the same as the Kroeng culture, when the next generations stop using the Khmer language,” Cheymongkol warned.

Because he sees language as the main pillar to preserve culture, Cheymongkol has been teaching Khmer language to young people living in Surin, although he says only a few are interested in learning the language.

He has, however, noticed that young people love listening to Khmer music, so he saw an avenue to foster cultural pride by bringing Cambodian musicians to Thailand for performances, and vice versa.

A few artists have raised concerns about security for cross-border concerts, but Cheymongkol said Thailand had allowed artists from several countries to perform for indigenous people living in the area, so he felt it would not be a problem for artistic exchanges.

He is also playing a part in reviving kantrum music, so older artists can pass on their skills before they die.

Kantrum, a female song form thought to date back to the Angkor empire in the seventh century AD, is  being re-invented as music that can be performed by both men and women.

Since 2006, Cheymongkol has taught more than 100 students in Thailand the basics of Khmer, which was traditionally spoken among  people in the Issan region until the language was officially banned because of border disputes.

He recently brought a troupe of Surin kantrum players to perform in Phnom Penh.

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