The government is throwing its weight behind a joint initiative by the Ministry of Culture and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia to re-submit its plea to UNESCO for recognition of kun l’bokator as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a status three other Cambodian Angkor-era traditions have enjoyed since 2008.
The renewed bid, which is to be made in the coming months, conclusively addresses several issues UNESCO had raised after NOCC’s first attempt in 2012 to seek recognition for this nearly 1,000-year-old martial art, which ranks among the world’s most ancient fighting techniques.
“There is a total conceptual and strategic change in the way we are presenting our case to UNESCO this time. The Ministry of Culture coming into this is very significant as is the steadfast support from the World Martial Arts Union, of which Cambodia is a member,” secretary-general of the NOCC Vath Chamroeun told the Post in an exclusive interview.
Alive in the consciousness
The cornerstone of Cambodia’s submission to UNESCO is that kun L’bokator was an extremely popular cultural activity among the people of the Khmer empire and that its empirical and historical value has to be preserved forever.
In support of its case, the Kingdom will present a 10-minute video that graphically captures the nuances of kun l’bokator while throwing light on embedded depictions of this fighting style in the Angkor Wat temple complex, which is a UNESCO-declared World Heritage site.
But more importantly, the Kingdom will bolster its appeal by outlining several progressive steps it will take in the ensuing years to keep kun l’bokator alive in the collective consciousness of the people.
Among the major initiatives that has been planned for the promotion and preservation of this ancient martial art is its introduction as a subject in schools countrywide, besides encouraging its spread among personnel in the army and police.
The NOCC has already included kun l’bokator as one of the 22 disciplines in the first ever National Games to be held later this year, with the logical next step being its entry to the SEA Games as a medal sport when Cambodia hosts the regional mega event in 2023.
“The thrust of our argument is that kun l’bokator was not just a fighting technique – it was a way of life and tradition. So this rich cultural inheritance dating back hundreds of years will have to be passed on down the generations, especially so since it was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror," Chamroeun said.
A conference of kun l’bokator activists, administrators, practitioners and historians held in Phnom Penh last month overwhelmingly endorsed this fresh initiative to approach UNESCO for what was generally perceived as “historically due to the people of Cambodia”.
The Cambodian narrative this time, backed as it has been by a wealth of historical evidence, is the closest to UNESCO’s definition of Intangible Asset of Humanity in that it is all about the living experiences of a country’s ancestors to be preserved and passed on to their descendants.
In the past eight years, UNESCO has recognised three of Cambodia’s most admired traditions: the Royal Ballet, sbek thom (shadow puppetry) and teanh prot (a tug of war ritual to mark a new agricultural cycle and bring an abundant harvest).
Both the Ministry of Culture and NOCC are optimistic that kun l’bokator will join this illustrious list. Though previously it was referred to as just “bokator” in common parlanceIn its historical context, kun l’bokator, which roughly translates as “to fight a lion”, was an ancient technique involving various weapons and was introduced to Khmer civilisation from India.
While it went through several local improvisations in Cambodia, the fighting style made its way to several other countries such as China, Japan and South Korea and assumed different shapes and forms.
Cambodian legacy for 1,000 years
So the underlying argument by Cambodia is that this style of fighting, which took root in Khmer society, is as old as, if not older than, many other martial art styles credited to other countries.
A few years ago kun l’bokator was voted as the No1 martial art in the Hong Bang International Martial Arts Festival in Vietnam over claims from 25 other countries from Asia and Europe.
Grandmaster San Kim Sean, who has been instrumental in reviving the sport after its near destruction by the Khmer Rouge, is of the firm opinion that the country should preserve what he calls the empirical legacy that has been built into the lives of Cambodians for 1,000 years.
“To achieve this goal, UNESCO recognition is very important. It ensures that this cultural treasure is never lost to humanity,” said San Kim Sean, who runs the country’s first Bokator Academy in Siem Reap.
Meanwhile, experts acknowledge the vital importance of yuthakun khom, a similar martial art practised by the warrior class during the Angkorian period.
“We attach equal importance to both these styles and it is not a matter of preference of one over the other. As is historically evident, yuthakun khom was widely used by soldiers guarding the kings whereas kun l’bokator was practised by the common people,” Chamroeun said.
“We are eager to have it listed because we have to preserve our cultural identity,” he said.