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Government’s ‘late’ UNESCO bid draws social media outcry

A Lakhon Khol performance with the hindu diety Hanuman represented by the white monkey. ROYAL UNIVERSITY OF FINE ARTS
A Lakhon Khol performance with the Hindu diety Hanuman represented by the white monkey. Royal University of Fine Arts

Government’s ‘late’ UNESCO bid draws social media outcry

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts yesterday announced that they have submitted the Khmer martial art Bokator, as well as Lakhon Khol – the traditional masked dance theatre – to be considered for recognition on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.

The announcement follows widespread outcry on social media as Cambodians reacted to the news that last week the Thai government submitted an art form similar to Lakhon Khol, known as Lakhon Khon, for UNESCO consideration. According to news network Thai PBS, the Thai government’s cabinet approved the submission of Khon on March 28. The Cambodian Culture Ministry filed its application the next day.

On Facebook, disgruntled users accused the ministry of being slow in their submission, while also laying claim to the masked dance as exclusively Cambodian patrimony – a common refrain that has surfaced in regard to other art forms that share similarities across Southeast Asian nations, such as sbek thom, Khmer shadow puppetry.

When the Bangkok Post first reported Thailand’s intent to submit their version of the dance to UNESCO last June, a similar reaction occurred on social media.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Lakhon Khol master Yit Sarin places the mask of the white monkey on a students head as a pre-performance blessing. Royal University of Fine Arts

Read more: The Monkey God’s last dance: Bidding a Lakhon Khol master farewell

Speaking by phone yesterday, Ministry of Culture spokesman Thai Norak Satya said the ministry has been working for more than a year to gather documentation to back up the UNESCO applications for Bokator and Lakhon Khol, noting that submissions are not in competition with those of other countries.

“The two intangible forms [Khon and Lakhon Khol] of art have many things in common due to historical relations, but they are two different dances,” he says. “However, it depends on UNESCO’s decision, and we cannot know the result beforehand.”

Satya went on to decry the fact that the ministry’s efforts for recognition of Cambodia’s culture went unappreciated by the public.

“Many people on Facebook blamed the government but only a few appreciate the government’s hard work on the issue,” he said, noting that the two-stringed guitar art-form, chapey dong veng, was added to the UNESCO list last year.

UNESCO is expected to hand down decisions on this year’s applications at a session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which will be held in December in Seoul.

Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi-Sassoon

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