Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, Minister of Culture.
HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, Minister for the Ministry of Culture and Fine
Arts, talks to Robert Carmichael
You are well-known for your interest in Khmer cultural traditions, and are credited
with the re-birth of classical Cambodian ballet. As a member of the Royal Family
you were introduced to Khmer culture at an early age - can you tell us your first
memory of this and the influence your late grandmother, Queen Sisowath Monivong Kossomak,
I was raised by my grandmother, who was the director of the Royal Ballet, so I was
always surrounded by dancers and ballet. In other words, my memory of Khmer culture
goes back as far as my earliest childhood. Dance classes were held every morning
during that period, so I always saw them.
When I was five years old, the King of Laos came to Cambodia. I was not supposed
to dance for him, because Royal Ballet dancers were meant to have eight years of
experience before dancing publicly. However, my father, the King, decided I should
dance for the King of Laos. That is one of my most cherished memories.
The effects of the Khmer Rouge years had a catastrophic effect on culture - just
one effect was the murder of most of the Palace's classical dancers. Do you think
that the country will recover its classical heritage to the levels seen prior to
the KR years?
The quality of dancing now is almost the same as it was then. Obviously the standard
is not exactly the same, but it has come close to reaching those levels.
As Minister for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA), your job covers a
wide area. What are the most important areas for your ministry?
I used to be more focused on the culture surrounding dancing, simply because I was
a dancer, but now I have a wider view regarding all of Cambodia's cultural aspects.
I don't focus on any one particular domain - my job is to maintain an interest in
all aspects of Cambodian culture, such as our temples, which are very important to
What do you consider the most pressing issue facing arts and culture in Cambodia?
It is very important that we recover the art and traditions we lost during the dark
period of the Khmer Rouge. Also we have to preserve what we still have, meaning we
have to be very vigilant about people stealing cultural artifacts. Secondly, we have
to educate the youth about the traditions that define Cambodia and its arts.
Culture and the arts is considered under-funded in Cambodia, which is not surprising
considering the problems of poverty the country faces. What is the budget of your
ministry and which areas receive the most funding?
Of course the funding for the Ministry of Culture is relatively low, but we do not
need too much funding. I have support from the Cambodian government, which understands
that we have to preserve the traditions, and the King helps a lot as well by intervening.
Also funding from organizations such as UNESCO and outside countries helps. The Ministry
is not paralyzed by a lack of funding, though.
[One major area is] the University of Fine Arts, which is divided into five colleges-music,
dance, plastic arts, sculpture and archaeology. I consider these various departments
The relationship with international cultural bodies such as UNESCO helps to maintain
the heritage of Cambodia. How important has the support of these bodies been, and
do you think this relationship will become more important in the future?
Regarding preservation of our heritage, since UNESCO declared Angkor Wat an international
historical monument that must be preserved, we have received help from other countries.
Among these are France, given the links between our two countries, and Japan, Australia
and Germany. The King has intervened too to inform the international community that
we need help to preserve and reconstruct our temples.
For the University of Arts, the main support is from the government. I would like
to have more help for the university from bodies such as UNESCO. Not just financial
support, but logistical support and advice too. I hope that this is something that
will happen in the future.
The US Ambassador recently donated money to preserve documents at one of the national
libraries. Does MoCFA have plans to raise funds from arts organizations overseas
to supplement the funds for areas needing more money?
The help of the US Ambassador is complementary with the help of France and Australia
in logistical and financial areas in conserving documents. The library is quite old
now - it was built in 1922 - and I think we need to restore [it]. We are still looking
for funding on that.
Tourism is likely to have an impact on the state of the country's rich cultural heritage,
particularly in and around Angkor Wat. Are you confident that tourism can be managed
properly to the benefit of Cambodia and its cultural heritage?
The job of the Ministry of Culture is to educate the people about culture and fine
arts. The Apsara Authority manages the flow of tourists at Angkor Wat. Of course
I am concerned about how this will affect the temples in the future, but that is
less my Ministry's concern as the Apsara Authority has that job.
The Ministry of Tourism is also involved, so I don't have any power to decide how
to manage or make changes if they are required. Tourism will become more important
economically to the country, but I hope and believe that those managing the areas
will keep in mind the need to preserve our heritage.
As a member of the Royal Family, how important do you feel the Monarchy is as a unifying
factor in Cambodian culture?
Since the Angkor period the monarchy has been very close to culture and has had a
lot to do with the development of it. I think that traditionally, one goes with the
other; that is still the case. The King is still involved in developing culture,
as of course is the government. There is always someone from the Royal Family deeply
involved in the cultural aspects of the country. My grandmother was very involved,
and I am too, with the Royal University of Fine Arts and the Royal Ballet.
In the space of about a year the Royal Family has been attacked in the media on several
occasions - I am thinking particularly of the accusation in a Thai newspaper against
yourself about drug smuggling, and criticisms of your father, the King, over the
change in procedure for petitioning the Palace by the poor. Has the status of the
Royal Family suffered among the Cambodian people as a result of this?
I went to court [against the Bangkok Post] over the defamation and am awaiting the
judge's decision. As regards the criticisms in general, I think it will not change
the fact that the Cambodian people are still attached to the Monarchy and especially
love the King.
Turning to the question of objects or archives of cultural and historic value: what
is MoCFA's current position on the status of these objects - are they to be retained
by the State indefinitely, or are some sold to raise money for other projects?
The object of the Ministry is to get back all the objects we lost, not to sell them.
The heritage is too important for Cambodians to sell. So no, we never sell them.
There has been much debate on the impact of "foreign" cultures on Cambodian
culture - one example would be Thai or Chinese TV shows being aired on Cambodian
TV channels; another the influence of Hollywood and Western music. What are your
thoughts on this issue?
As I said earlier, the Khmer culture is very closely linked with the Monarchy, but
looking further, Khmer culture at its beginning was very strongly influenced by Indian
culture. We are a small country in this region and other countries do influence our
culture. I asked the King about 'Khmerization' - Indian culture first brought the
arts here, but we have transformed that into a specifically Khmer art. The same goes
for dancing as well.
We have a specific cultural heritage that has aspects in common with other countries,
but like them we are also influenced by the rest of the world.
As regards dance and ballet, the recent tour to the United States was very successful
and everybody loved it. Even though this art was influenced by other countries, people
recognize that it is uniquely Khmer.
If the government and the Royal Family continue to help develop and promote Khmer
culture, I think that it will stay as it always has. I mean that we will preserve
that culture, even though it might involve some mixing with other cultures. We are
not closed - we are open-minded.
Finally, in many countries around the world, the influence of traditional culture,
particularly among the young, is shrinking. How do you see the future of traditional
It is quite difficult to protect [ourselves] from the future. As I am from the older
generation, I cannot say exactly what is in the hearts and the minds of the young
people. But what I saw outside the country and in the camps and in Cambodia is that
people are proud to be Khmer - and Khmer is the culture, the heritage and the traditions.
Even though some are 'rebels' when they are young - I was a rebel when I was younger
- I hope and believe that when they get older that those young people [not interested
in Khmer culture] will change their minds.
Tradition and culture is the link between Cambodians and their country. The [link
between] the individual and their identity is very close. I said earlier that the
monarchy and culture are the same, but the link between culture and being Khmer is
the same. It is all one thing. Just by saying "I am Khmer" means that you
have all that tradition and culture behind you. You may not be able to see it on
the surface, but deep down tradition and culture is common to all Khmers.