When six performing artists stayed behind in America last year, it was front-page
news in Cambodia even before the rest touched down at Pochentong. In January, another
six disappeared. With the 'defections' to Canada in July 2001, this was the third
such incident over two years. Cambodia has lost 20 of its top performers to North
America over a decade.
At the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), the sense of loss was palpable.
"We depend on the younger generation for the survival of our art," says
a downcast Proeung Chhieng, dean of the Choreographic School. "What's the point
if those we train for years give it all up to live abroad?"
One draconian tactic, used in 1992, forced artists to sign contracts threatening
their families with arrest, should they be tempted to jump ship.
"Of course we wouldn't have gone so far - it was just to scare people,"
insists Chhieng. It didn't work: Five stayed behind, including the great Apsara dancer
Among the latest group was top reed-player Nol Kol and the young monkey-dance star
Pheng Sarannarith. Now a doughnut-seller in Long Beach, Peng exists on less than
the minimum wage. He won't be dancing much. According to a local shopkeeper: "He
may get to perform a token something at Khmer New Year, but that's about it."
Nol Kol did return, however. He hadn't intended to stay, he says, until encouraged
by "people I didn't know". Taking a job in a Chinese restaurant, he worked
thirteen-hour days without a break for $50.
"In America, that's nothing," he says. "I'd prefer to be poor
here and useful, than poor and overworked there and be a nobody."
He suspects Peng is feeling the same, but believes "some people, having made
that decision, cannot face the shame of coming back. They can't even be even a part-time
artist over there. I would have had to change my profession and start from scratch."
Should there be another tour, Kol will warn artists of the consequences of their
Chhieng knows of others who want to return. If so, the procedure is simple.
"Cambodia's Washington embassy is obliged to issue their nationals with
a new passport and travel documents to return home," says a US official.
"We don't penalize people trying to leave the country, although they might
be denied re-entry."
After the 2001 defections, the Washington Post quoted Radio Free Asia journalist
Vuthy Huot as saying: "In Cambodia, as a performer, you can't survive, and there
are no stages to perform on."
Access to jobs, he said, came "as a result of nepotism and flattery". Point
out that Cambodia has the Chaktomuk Theater and another at RUFA, and Huot
merely repeats that since the national Bassac Theater burned down in 1994, dancers
have been "demoralized".
Kol flatly rejects this.
"You hear these kinds of things all the time in the US," he says. "Actually
the arts are growing here and more people are taking note of their importance. We
have acquired a certain pride in the arts."
Pride maybe, but a living? For almost eight years now 529 Ministry of Culture and
Fine Arts (MoCFA) performers exist on salaries of between $15 and $25 a month, a
sum occasionally augmented by foreign tours or $5-to-$10 performance fees. Less than
10 percent manage to make a living from their art, even when combining performing
with teaching and the odd TV appearance.
"Of course it's a question of their livelihoods," says Hang Soth, director
of MoCFA's Performance Department. But invite official comment on how to stem the
drain of talent and shoulders keep shrugging.
"We want very much to improve artists' daily lives," insists Secretary
of State Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth. "Until things improve with our economy,
there's nothing we can do."
The sponsors, mostly North American foundations which are unhappy at bearing the
costs if it unwittingly encourages defections, see it differently. Sam Miller of
the New England Foundation believes the country's artists need a "healthier
and more supportive environment: the fact that artists chose not to return speaks
of the urgent need for long range systematic planning and development that will build
the capacity of the performing arts."
In Cambodia, foreign foundations, businesses and NGOs have supported the country's
limited revival of culture. Small donations have furthered the research, preservation
and performance of its intangible heritage, from masked theater to shadow puppetry.
And it has made a difference. Six years ago, once-a-month performances of classical
dance were invariably tied to political events and inaccessible to ordinary Cambodians.
Today there's even occasionally the luxury of choosing between two or three performances,
with one organization, the NGO Sovanna Phum, providing regular weekend shows.
Yet Cambodia is one of the few Southeast Asian countries lacking a properly managed
arts infrastructure. Small foreign impresarios employing Cambodians cannot substitute
for comprehensive programs of events one finds in Malaysia or Indonesia, where national
cultural policies have long replaced empty slogans, and performing arts are both
subsidized by the government and generate private sponsorship.
MoCFA funds annual events like National Cultural Day or ASEAN summits. Yet its plans
for more ambitious festivals, be they at Siem Reap or Sambor Pre Kuk, usually fall
foul of an unsympathetic Council of Ministers. Hang Soth says the now annual floods
provide the routine excuse not to deliver.
"Just look at the list of proposals submitted to the government", he says,
"and see the line of zeros next to our projects."
Even so, the funding of Cambodia's culture is both sporadic and Byzantine. Sok An,
representing the Council of Ministers, publicly "donates" five million
riel at Cultural Day, while high-ranking officials including Hun Sen and Heng Samrin
have given gifts for both private and public performances. The King sponsors occasional
Palace concerts, and helps out with performances at the Water Festival.
To add to the imbroglio, the former Minister of Culture, Cheng Pohn, runs a cultural
hub out of the Vipassana center in Takhmau. Through his wide-ranging influence, he
manages to fund ambitious educational projects and dry season tours of lakhoan bassac
to the provinces, events that should really be the responsibility of the government.
When Princess Norodom Buppha Devi became Culture Minister in 1998, people anticipated
change. A former Apsara dancer who performed for De Gaulle, she seemed perfectly
placed to raise artists' international profiles and to challenge the internal pecking
order. The rebuilding of the Bassac Theater, the very stage on which she performed,
would be a priority, people said.
The Princess has worked assiduously in her area of expertise: the accurate reconstruction
of classical dances post-Pol Pot. She is currently helping UNESCO include Cambodian
classical dance onto the World Heritage List, as exclusively performed by troupes
from RUFA and the National Theater.
"If we are to preserve classical dance, we cannot let other companies devalue
the art form," she says firmly. The classical repertory and its research component
have expanded incrementally.
But four years into her tenure, architect Vann Molyvann's still derelict Bassac Theater
has come to symbolize the malaise of the Cambodian performing arts.
Artists, many in training since age seven, remain among the poorest civil servants
with top salaries of around $30, compared to the $650 afforded prosecuting lawyers
and judges. Apparently lawyers are valued more highly than artists, but the reality
is that artists lack political clout and adequate representation.
A Funcinpec ministry, even one run by a Royal, comes low down in the pecking order.
Eleven billion riel annually ($2.8 million, 0.6 percent of GDP) barely pays the salaries
of some 1,700 MoCFA employees countrywide. This is a poor ministry, which generates
no income and can barely afford even basic necessities such as A4 paper. In 1998,
the ministry lost the right to collect tourist entrance fees at Angkor Park to SOKIMEX,
a potentially huge loss of income.
It is widely assumed that the Princess has little influence at the Council of Ministers.
Neither does she seem to think it's her brief to raise money privately. Occasionally
the Princess appears at RUFA to hand out gifts in the form of 10,000 riel notes to
A dearth of expertise or capable advisors, redundant Royal protocol and the residue
of an inert Communist-style bureaucracy all appear to contribute to the perception
of the ministry as one of Cambodia's most atrophied and dysfunctional. Even the act
of producing a program note requires outside help. There's no press officer or web
site. Emails get read once a month, and get little response.
Julie Chenot, a UN volunteer helping the ministry, points to poor communication and
the lack of a cultural policy.
"The ministry needs to sell and market its ideas effectively, both to the government
or the donor community at large."
As it stands, MoCFA lacks the expertise to create workable proposals. The best projects
tend to be taken elsewhere, for lack of a means of implementation.
Up to 70 percent of other ministries' budgets comes from foreign donors. The Princess
claims "international organizations help us because they understand the value
of Khmer culture", yet, aside from the occasional unilateral gift, this is a
no-go ministry for investors.
"Governments want to help and regularly inquire into the identity and objectives
of the ministry, but the response is usually so slow that parties lose interest,"
says one insider.
Expert advice is urgently needed to help attract both private and public investment
and, crucially, generate funds for infrastructure projects and sustainable public
performance. Other ministries get it. The Urbanization Ministry, for example, set
up a technical advisory group courtesy of the Finnish government.
Improvements have been coming, slowly. The last Cultural Day introduced outdoor events
to showcase different performing genres at Wat Phnom and Wat Botum. The people finally
got to celebrate their own culture!
The more ambitious plan for an advertising company to sponsor performances in the
provinces didn't manage to circumvent ministerial obstacles in time.
All this begs the question: "Whose culture?" In Cambodia, classical culture
was the exclusive right of gods, then god-kings and then kings. In the sixties, classical
dance was taken out of the Palace, while other forms such as lakhoan yike and lakhoan
bassac thrived among a new urban, ticket-paying audience.
Subsidized performances at the Bassac Theater and in the regions were plentiful,
and there were a plethora of private companies set up by impresarios for profit.
Cambodian artists traveled the world.
"Not a single person failed to return," says Hang Soth.
The people's right to culture, a concept heavily promoted during the Communist eighties,
brought new subsidies. Popular yike such as Tum Teav went on night after night for
But post-UNTAC, the impecunious government had other priorities and vestiges of the
old elitism returned. The Bassac's conflagration in 1994 brought destitution to the
artists. Two years earlier, the first post-war tour to the US returned minus six
dancers. Cultural Day was given at the Chaktomuk behind closed doors for an invitation-only
While for Hang Soth the increase in tourism signals a return to halcyon years, others
believe it threatens the very root of the culture and the quality of the dance.
"Artists will be asking 'Do you want the $5 dance, or the $10 dance?' "
says Chheng Pohn with heavy irony.
As Cambodia's most sacred dance, the Apsara should be off-limits, agrees MoCFA's
director of international cultural cooperation Ouk Lay. He declined to comment on
its recent incarnation as a supporting act to Raffles presenting Jose Carreras singing
"O Sole Mio" at Angkor Wat. This was the $1,500 dance, disturbed by the
clanking of knives and dinner glasses.
Arcane arguments about culture can lift the level of debate, but the lack of commitment
to public performance in general is confounding.
"We don't have the tradition for it," insists Ouk Lay, "besides which
we have no theater. Cambodians can't afford it ... we can't afford it."
Hang Soth isn't so fatalistic, but was forced to abandon a series of National Theater
performances once the numbers didn't add up. Did he try to acquire a sponsor? No,
he says, "Only foreigners get sponsors."
But it actually costs very little to mount performances here.
"Even a large repertory piece with sixty dancers costs only $600, including
PR, printing and advertising," says producer Fred Frumberg. "Two shows
a weekend over three months comes to about $14,000, and that's not including ticket
The government itself could collect this revenue if it stopped handing out hundreds
of free passes to functionaries and friends.
Now that the Chenla Theater and the Chaktomuk are up and running, the claims that
there are no theaters are redundant. The latter, though ostensibly a conference hall,
still functions as a theater under the control of the ministry. Most of the time
it's dark: the Ministry mounts a handful of official functions a year. Yet it has
no qualms about charging $1,500 a night in rent, well in excess of what its own performers
can afford and far more than the $150-to-$200 needed for electricity, technical staff,
security and staff.
"The figure can be reduced," says Hang Soth, but only on condition that
no tickets are sold. The French government afforded the full whack when putting on
a single yike, but the group mounting the modern play Kolab Pailin could not. They
paid $200 but sold no tickets, the revenue used "to help maintain the theater".
Frumberg would prefer the stage be given to all MoCFA performers free of charge.
If marketed properly, most performances will sell out, suggesting Cambodians want
access to their own culture and not just Khmer boy bands and karaoke.
Ex-UNESCO employee Suon Bunrith sees the issue as a moral imperative.
"We cannot depend on foreigners to provide our own culture, as essential a resource
as water. Khmer people should be doing that," he says. "I just wish the
government would do something responsible to generate funds."
ï Robert Turnbull is a freelance journalist who lives in Cambodia.