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Arts can be cathartic for Khmer Rouge survivors: study

To depict a forced marriage ceremony, dancers don kramas and looks of anguish during a performance in 2016.
To depict a forced marriage ceremony, dancers don kramas and looks of anguish during a performance in 2016. Athena Zelandonii

Arts can be cathartic for Khmer Rouge survivors: study

A small-scale research study carried out in Cambodia has indicated that the performing arts can serve as a form of catharsis and have value as potential reparations for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The objective of the research was to examine the effectiveness of artistic performances in dealing with trauma, and how the performances contributed to decreasing psychological distress among survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, specifically victims of forced marriage, said Taing Sopheap, a researcher at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO).

It is estimated that 1.7 million Cambodians died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, and currently two in five survivors are estimated to suffer from mental health problems.

The research also sought to find out to what extent the survivors valued artistic performances. The performance in question, created as part of the Pka Sla Krom Angkar project, is a dance that tells the true stories of victims of forced marriage.

“For those who experienced trauma, the art performance contributes in breaking the silence. [It] allowed them to share their experiences with the second generation and third generation, allowed them to open up,” Sopheap said. “The study confirmed that 90 percent agreed that [the performance] is a form of reparation.”

A total of 91 victims of forced marriage – in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot – were invited to watch the performance. The full findings of the study haven’t been released, as the researchers hope to publish them in a scholarly journal.

Sylvia Johnson, international adviser for TPO, said that for victims, the performance was “an exposure to their experience”. “They know their story is out there,” she added.

The participants included survivors from three religious backgrounds – Buddhist, Muslim and Christian – who underwent two assessments, which consisted of face-to-face interviews with researchers.

The first assessment took place one day after watching the art performance, with the second one carried out three months later.

Around 53 percent of participants reported a decrease in baksbat, or “broken courage”, a Cambodian cultural expression for trauma often used by survivors, according to the key findings.

Some 39 percent reported a decrease in anxiety, nearly 31 percent reported a decrease in depression and a roughly equal amount indicated having experienced a reduction in post traumatic stress disorder.

However, Johnson noted the study has limitations, and researchers also need to look into what happens beyond the three-month period.

Johnson said researchers are now seeking additional funding to be able to invite survivors in other provinces to watch the performance, and want to air it on national television in the coming months.

They hope to publish the full study in March.

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