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Defending Cambodia's culture

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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,

had?

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

the country.

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

equally important.

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

Khmer culture?

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.

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