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Keeping an eye on Culture

Veng Sereyvuth, Cambodia's new Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, has been active

in Cambodian public affairs since the late 1980s when he became a senior official

in Funcinpec. Infectiously youthful and positive, he appears completely passionate

about Khmer culture, both ancient and new. He served 11 years as Minister of Tourism

from 1993-2004 and has been a member of parliament for nearly 15 years. His youth

was spent in the turmoil of the 60s and 70s. He explained: "I was born on 31

May 1960 in Prey Veng where I experienced a lot of US bombing. My village in Prey

Veng was 'liberated' by the Khmer Rouge in 1970, and in 1971 I escaped to Phnom Penh.

From 1971 to 1975 I was a cyclo-driver - as well as selling noodles." After

the fall of Phnom Penh, he was sent back to Prey Veng for one year and then on to

Battambang. "I was just waiting to die during this time. I lived under the Vietnamese

for one year as a smuggler - fishing nets and hooks, sarongs etc." He finally

escaped across the Thai border in 1980. His family resettled in New Zealand where

he received a degree in 1987 from Victoria University in Wellington. In 2002, he

studied economic reform at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Sereyvuth

spoke to reporter Dan Poynton about his philosophy of simplification and preserving

Cambodia's arts and culture.

Tell us about your experience as Minister of Tourism and head of the National Tourism

Authority.

I was 11 years as minister. In 1993 there were only 120,000 tourists per year in

Cambodia. Now we have two million, which isn't too bad! We have an average growth

rate of 20 percent plus, and I foresee that this growth rate will continue. The prime

minister had a very clear vision at that time: we adopted an open sky policy, visa

on arrival, and we gave every Cambodian who was born here or had parents who were

born here a permanent life visa. We got the ball rolling in the worldwide promotion

of the country. We embarked on massive tourism investment and construction of infrastructure

such as airports and roads.

Is being Minister of Culture and Fine Arts your "dream job"?

For a long time I have had a habit of loving my work. I just get along, and I have

a burning desire to get the job done effectively. I am very proud that the prime

minister has entrusted me to work in this ministry. We Khmers do not like to openly

express our ambitions, and it is not for me to say which area I should be working

in. That is for those above me to decide.

What does "culture" mean to you?

I see culture as instilling spirit in people. Through this spirit people become aware

of their cultural codes, ways of proper behavior, and good and bad. Culture is not

just dance shows, it's education. It teaches you about life, society and ways of

living. Culture is also identity. For example in a crowd you should be able to immediately

see that a person is Khmer. I am not conservative but I would like to see a return

to more traditional dress, especially at official functions. We are in a mess in

terms of resources in Cambodia. A challenge working in this ministry is to learn

how to use those resources for the benefit of society. The richness of Khmer culture

can mobilize the country for years to come. We will try to get people to participate

in training programs - from schools upwards.

Does the CPP give enough important cabinet positions to FUNCINPEC members?

This is a very important job. What's more important than culture for a society? After

all we are here for a short time and human life is all about culture, custom, education,

humanity and these things. Life needs more than material things. Can you imagine

human life without culture? But the society that Pol Pot tried to destroy came rushing

back. The sharing of political positions is above me, and not for me to comment on.

Does the government have the will to put enough money into culture and the arts?

The government is getting richer every year and they're already pumping more money

into different departments. They've already increased their budget for cultural activities

but we can certainly ask for more. The government is fully aware of the value of

the arts.

How are the arts doing in Cambodia today?

For example just look at how many more Cambodian movies are now being produced, even

compared with just a few years ago. Cambodians are now watching their own movies.

If sometimes they get a bit sexy, well that's only a detail that can be addressed,

but the main thing is that movies are being made.

How is globalization affecting Khmer arts and culture?

You cannot try to prevent globalization in the 21st century, because it brings economic

power with it. Pol Pot threw everything away in a short period, but Angkor civilization

had developed to a great extent and today it has come back vibrantly and quickly.

It shows our culture is rich and very, very strong. To conserve our culture and counter

globalization we are going to have to find out how to train people, and teach the

cultural values of this society in all areas.

Does Cambodia run risk of being "culturally swamped" by its larger neighbors?

In fact the countries around us are also being swamped by our culture. Angkor civilization

is in the blood. We're talking about "those dark Khmers" - you see their

expression in the faces of Bayon. They're very peaceful and self-confident. It is

a special Khmer character formed 2000 years ago with the coming of Indian influences.

This produced the real Khmer culture. Our civilization is going to be here forever

- I'm not that panicked about the impact of other cultures.

Can you keep alive the Royal University of Fine Arts, Dey Krahorm and the Bassac

Theatre ?

The government has put in a lot of effort to preserve these living arts but it's

never enough. I'm very positive that'll we get more from the government to undertake

different programs. I know the government's economic power is getting stronger and

the trickle-down effect will benefit the arts.

Can Cambodia provide better protection for the Angkor antiquities?

We have to transform the people into being their own guards. They must see that whatever

is around their village or district is a treasure, and they can turn this treasure

into economic prosperity.

How do you cope with the pressures of your work?

Keep it humble and simple. My father taught me to be honest and to preserve your

dignity and honor at all costs. If you have to eat noodles on the street tomorrow

so be it. Nothing is permanent. My job is busy, but at the same time it's similar

to any other job. I believe in the simple equation. There is a solution to every

issue. I tend to simplify this whole business of government. You should be able to

laugh when you work. It's not a matter of life and death. You will then find plenty

of time to do your job. Worry is a terrible disease. Do not worry, worry gives you

nothing.

Go back to the faces of Bayon - serene, above everything else.

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