Members of the Ministry of Culture gathered at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall last month to celebrate the country's Fifth National Cultural Day. Noting that culture and development are not mutually exclusive, event organizers called for a union between historical preservation and future growth.
Dubbing the event's theme: "Culture, Values and Social Development," the Ministry of Culture is banking on the country's history- rich with tradition and art- as a means of earning money. Tourism today is deeply routed in Khmer culture, reaching from the customs of hill tribes to the animal reserves of the Cardamom Mountains.
''Culture is certainly tangible- temples and monuments; and intangible- heritage with performing arts, fine arts or visual arts,'' said Etienne Clement, a representative of Cambodia's UNESCO branch office.
If asked, most Cambodians will express a deep pride in Khmer culture, based on a society distinctly different from any surrounding country and its people. But one would be more hard-pressed to ask a Cambodian to define specifically what is Khmer culture.
The country's intellectual, political and social culture experienced tremendous change throughout years of civil war, when the Khmer Rouge nearly wiped the country of all cultural remnants and the people who could remember them. Since Cambodia's regained its independence from the Khmer Rouge, a cultural revival was born and continues to grow, often feeding from the influences of foreign nations.
Much of Cambodia's culture is an unspoken desire for peace. Decades of sleepless nights due to gunfire or the threat of death may have raised the country on fear, but it also taught society that violence carries a country backwards, not forwards. This mentality of peace, or at least non-involvement, is reflected in the government's position towards the US-led war in Iraq. Following the credo of all ASEAN nations, Cambodia has taken a pro-peace position, calling for UN involvement and nonviolence.
Peaceful development is Cambodia's main goal today, as was reflected by the attendance of high profile government officials at the cultural celebration by the riverside.
Senior Minister of Cabinet Sok An, Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, as well as the UN's Clement all showed support for Cambodia's forward motion.
''Indeed during the last fifty years, there has been raising awareness of the importance of culture to support development,'' Clement said in a statement. More than 400 students, artists, art professors, Ministry of Culture officials and international guests of UNESCO joined the day's celebrations, making the event a success.
Princess Devi informed the attendees about the importance of the day's theme, reminding them that the value of culture extends beyond just the day's celebration.
"The objective is to increase every Cambodian's education about the national culture values in developing the society, in order to reduce Cambodian people's poverty and [to improve the status of] the next generation of people," she said in a statement.
large part of this development will be funded by the country's tourism sector, Cambodia's most viable industry. Tourism is an increasingly reliable source of income for the country, and the Ministry of Tourism has forecast that the number of visitors to Cambodia will reach 1 million this year, and 1.3 million by 2004. Minister Veng Sereyvuth since has warned that the war in Iraq and the worldwide outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome could hinder the country's chances of reaching that goal but he remains hopeful nonetheless.
Culture Day attendees braved the hot sun to stroll outside the Chaktomouk Conference Hall, where photographs depicted achievements made by the Ministry of Culture in the past five years. Fourteen different departments were showcased in the exhibit, spanning from 1998 to 2002.
In her statement, Princess Devi noted many of the achievements, including research conducted on the Sambo Preikuk Temple in Kampong Thom province. Ministry officials have repaired, preserved and cleaned the temple's surrounding area and built a road to the site. An excavation of ancient Khmer artifacts also has been completed, yielding the registration of 47 kinds of ancient artifacts from 1,147 pieces.
Although the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts often sets out to preserve pieces of culture, it also is on a mission to destroy. In 2002, the Ministry destroyed 11,384 pieces of pirated and sexually explicit VCDs.
Raffles International Limited, the chain from which the Hotels LeRoyal in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap springs, organized the Jose Carreras concert at the Angkor Wat Temples in Siem Reap last December. Proceeds turned into humanitarian aid for landmine victims, as well as for the Cambodian Red Cross. Angkor Night was an overwhelming success due to the collaborative help of the Ministry of Culture and the French Cultural Center. Angkor Wat hosted another celebration a few months later, when members of all ten ASEAN countries gathered to celebrate ASEAN Cultural Week, hosted without a hitch by the Cambodian government. Artists certainly have had their time to shine in the past few years. Most recently, the Ministry of Culture held a painting contest in which 72 applicants submitted 97 masterpieces. Annual contests for kite making and flying, Khmer clothes, and Khmer food also helped bring tangible displays of culture to the people.
A great achievement will be made when the Ministry of Culture's anticipated accession to the 3rd Ministerial Round Table in Istanbul, Turkey comes true. This conference of 111 countries from around the world will focus on intangible heritage. With the support of UNESCO, Cambodia currently is preparing all the documents necessary for integrating Khmer traditional dance into the world's list of intangible heritage.
The Ministry's past is remarkable, but it's future may be even more impressive. Plans for a new culture resort in Sambo Preikuk commune of Kampong Thom province are in the works. This project would aim to develop the national economy as the temple development group has done in Siem Reap province. Plans also are being developed to accelerate the progress and improve the quality of Khmer performing arts. Both endeavors likely will be realized, since they are well supported by the NGO community.
In a statement last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen also expressed support for the Culture Ministry's efforts to uphold Cambodian culture and asked as many Cambodians as possible to join the Cultural Day. Hun Sen added that the government would begin to develop the ancient temples of Preah Vihear and Banteay Chhma for cultural tourism. Now the real challenge lies in linking cultural preservation and development with sustainable economic growth. With an expanding tourism industry, it will be important to ensure that money made from Cambodian culture is made for Cambodian people.