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The Kingdom of Wonder Regains its Place on the World’s Cultural Stage

ISSUE 2019
No 11
Release 23 October 2019
By Dr. Helen Jarvis

Executive Summary

  • Over the past 40 years the Cambodian government has sought to raise the country’s international profile, seeing cultural heritage as one of its most valuable assets.
  • The recent flowering of Cambodia’s cultural profile on the world stage has been able to draw on the country’s rich cultural prowess from ancient time that was foregrounded in several previous historical periods.
  • Although this cultural heritage was brutally crushed and nearly eliminated during the years of conflict, war and genocide, strenuous revival efforts were undertaken immediately following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.
  • Only since the ending of the Khmer Rouge as a military and political organisation at the end of 1998 and restoration of peace throughout the country has this cultural revival reached a new qualitative level, enabling Cambodia to regain its place as a main player on the world’s cultural stage.

On 15 January 2019 a magnificent cultural performance by nine countries, including Cambodia, was staged in front of the Elephant Terrace of Angkor Thom to celebrate the launching of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC).

Following a congratulatory Royal Message from His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia, the Siem Reap Declaration was read, outlining the ACC’s aims and objectives (see Annex 1), and the new body was declared officially launched by Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Angkor was a fitting place for the launch of the ACC, not only because of the splendour of its setting in the ancient capital, but also because Cambodia has been playing a key role in bringing the ACC into being since the idea was first proposed in 2014 by Hon. Jose de Venecia, former speaker of the Philippines Congress, at a meeting of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP). Priority was given to this initiative by the late Samdech Vibol Panha Dr Sok An, leading to the endorsement of the ACC under the umbrella of ICAPP and the conclusion of a Cooperation Agreement with UNESCO in October 2018.

The hosting of the launch of the ACC at Angkor and its Secretariat in Phnom Penh is the latest initiative in efforts made over the past 40 years by the Cambodian government to raise the country’s international profile, in which cultural heritage is seen as one of its most valuable assets. The government’s cultural diplomacy has been carried out in partnership with or alongside numerous initiatives by individual artists, scholars, private companies and organisations.

Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural diplomacy, recently popularised under the term “soft power”, refers to efforts by countries to raise their visibility and influence on the world stage by highlighting their comparative advantage in the field of culture. This may take the form of publicising their tangible assets and/or by sending exhibitions or performers that might attract popular interest and may even have a “knock-on” effect in terms of generating political support.

Cultural diplomacy as practised by most of the great powers, especially throughout the second half of the 20th century, but still today, is implemented mainly through what may be characterised as bilateral “push” actions: promoting their national languages in education and the media and offering scholarships to nurture a sympathetic elite (here we may recall the once vigorous activities, particularly in their former colonies and protectorates, of the Alliance Française and  the British Council; as well as the United States Information Service and a number of that country’s councils and non-governmental bodies, especially during the 1950s; and China’s Confucius Institutes more recently established in many countries).

By contrast, as a small power on the world stage, Cambodia has sought to project its cultural prowess on the international arena via “pull” initiatives, showcasing its intangible cultural heritage, especially dance, through tours and performances in different countries, and its tangible heritage through exhibitions and loans to international museums. Cambodia has also played an active role in multilateral cultural structures, especially within UNESCO.

Cambodian Cultural Diplomacy during the Protectorate

The recent flowering of Cambodia’s cultural profile on the world stage can be understood with a better perspective by looking briefly at its evolution in several previous historical periods, notably during the French protectorate (1863-1953) and in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period (1955-1970). Then, as today, Cambodia’s cultural diplomacy has foregrounded the country’s ancient rich cultural heritage, especially the splendours of Angkor.

Angkor’s glories (and indeed its daily life) had been reported to the Chinese Emperor by the envoy, Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta Kuan), in 1297, but they had not been popularly presented until the Universal Expositions of 1867 and 1878 in Paris, displaying plaster casts and actual sculptures taken by a series of French explorations and archaeological expeditions. The sculptures have until today been exhibited in the Musée Guimet.

Ever more information from excavations, research and restorations by scholars especially of the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO French School of Far Eastern Studies) from 1898 onwards on the astonishing beauty and dimensions of Angkor and the hundreds of other ancient monuments throughout the Kingdom was subsequently publicised. Some of the examples were exhibited in a small museum in Phnom Penh in 1905.

In 1906 King Sisowath ascended the throne, ushering in two decades of vigorous cultural diplomacy. His Majesty himself led a tour of the Royal Ballet to France that year, commencing with the colonial Marseille Exposition. They captured the imagination of many, including the famous artist Auguste Rodin, whose magical watercolours of the dancers in their ethereal poses are much loved and widely exhibited even today, including at the National Museum of Cambodia in 2007.

In 1907 more than 200 European tourists visited Angkor, and in the following 20 years Cambodia became a favourite destination for the first generation of mass tourists. They arrived in cruise ships and later in aeroplanes. Some of them including the famous actors Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard and the pioneering dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn stayed in the luxury hotels that still stand today in Phnom Penh (Hotel Le Royal) and Siem Reap (Grand Hotel d’Angkor).

The School of Fine Arts (in 1965 renamed the Royal University of Fine Arts) and the Musée Albert Sarraut (now the National Museum of Cambodia), both originally directed by George Groslier, were opened in 1918 and 1920 respectively. Soon afterwards they were followed by the National Library and Archives, providing expertise and preservation of documentations essential to support emerging Cambodian scholars and underpinning later efforts at cultural revival.

The 1917 survey of artisanal practices in the countryside became the basis for Groslier’s construct of what constituted the approved canon of “Cambodian Arts”, the basis for Cambodia’s arts curricula and for much of its cultural industry. 1918 saw the opening of the Cambodian Corporations, selling the products of the School, and they were exhibited through the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Vincennes and even until today.

The effort of documenting and defining Cambodia’s cultural identity and presenting it to the world via cultural diplomacy dwindled under the impact of  the sequence of the Great Depression (1929-1941) and the Second World War (1939-1945), both of which halted not only government funding for cultural development but also the development of the phenomenon of mass tourism. This was followed immediately by the post-war years dominated by the struggle for independence by Cambodia, like other former colonies and protectorates, through which the great colonial powers were eventually prevented from re-establishing their empires.

Cambodian Cultural Diplomacy during the Sangkum

Cambodia regained its independence on 9 November 1953, and King (later Prince) Norodom Sihanouk devoted much energy to a campaign to restore the country’s status as a cultural icon.  One of the first manifestations in 1955 was the first International Exhibition of Phnom Penh, staged in strikingly modern pavilions constructed to the west of Wat Phnom. Ten other countries (all within the pro-US camp in the Cold War) were invited to participate in the exhibition of their wares. The exhibition was accompanied by the Asian Film Festival and various competitions and exhibitions of art, photography, puppetry, song and dance, sports and even a beauty pageant. The Exhibition’s publicity pamphlet, written by Naem Kem, proclaimed that Cambodia had “turned the page” from colonialism to self-rule and would compel “all countries of the world to open their eyes and recognize this fact”.

Angkor and the Royal Ballet were once again considered to be major national assets. They were presented to visiting diplomats and tourists alike. In September 1958, during a period when US-Cambodian diplomatic relations were under strain (due to Cambodian assertion of neutrality and its recognition of the People’s Republic of China), Sihanouk undertook a cultural diplomacy initiative to tour the United States, reported as having “caused quite a stir in diplomatic circles, particularly following the Cambodian-themed parties he organized in New York and Washington that included a traditional Khmer dance recital given by Princess Bopha Devi, Prince Chakrapong and dancers from the Royal Cambodian Ballet.”

For a few short years Cambodia was promoted and widely seen as “an island of peace” and Phnom Penh as “the pearl of the orient”. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was a prominent presence alongside other newly independent leaders like India’s President Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesia’s President Sukarno at the Bandung Conference of 1955, when 29 African and Asian countries stood together to promote economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism or neo-colonialism by any nation. The Conference led to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

Culture and diplomacy obviously intersected on 6 October 1959 when Cambodia filed a petition in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague seeking its recognition of Cambodian sovereignty over the Temple of Preah Vihear, which was being contested by Thailand.  On 15 June 1962, the ICJ ruled “that the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated on territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia”. Since that time, Cambodia has invested much in the protection and promotion of the temple as one of its principal heritage assets.

During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community, 1955-1970), the EFEO returned to continue its archaeological work, now in partnership with the new generation of emerging Cambodian specialists and scholars. And the country’s emphasis on the assets of ancient tangible and intangible heritage began to be accompanied by pride in and promotion of contemporary artistic achievements, exemplified and strongly promoted by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who led the field in his role as musician, composer and prolific film-maker. Increasing numbers of Cambodian scholars and artists developed what was known as the “new” art (Nhiek Dim, Sam Yuan and others) and architecture (Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap and others), while modern jazz and rock-and-roll music and dance became ever more popular especially among the urban elites.

The lights gradually faded on this bright situation. On the one hand, internal opposition was growing against Sihanouk’s regime, while, at the same time, the snares of war were gradually tightening around Cambodia, despite Sihanouk’s efforts to remain neutral. As early as 1965, the US launched the first of its bombing campaigns accompanied by incursions by US and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia’s territories. They aimed to block North Vietnamese soldiers’ passage through Cambodia on what was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ferrying supplies for fighters in the south.

Cambodian Cultural Diplomacy during the Dark Years of Conflict and Genocide

In 1970, Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum was toppled in a coup by Lon Nol, whose fiercely nationalistic Khmer Republic allied itself closely with the US and its war effort in neighbouring Vietnam, the conflict that had spilled over into Cambodia, generating a bitter civil war. US planes, including B-52s, launched massive raids right across Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, dropping at least 500,000 tons of bombs, leaving craters that can still be seen today.

The aura of the Royal Palace, and especially of Sihanouk, was gone along with all “Royal” nomenclature, but Lon Nol did not turn his back on cultural diplomacy. His new government’s biggest initiative at this time was the appearance in New York of the newly renamed Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia at the Afro-Asian Festival held in October 1971.

Back home, popular music, dance and songs became ever more utilised in the service of bolstering national defence, with even Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea performing patriotic songs in uniform for the Khmer Republic troops.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk responded to his ouster by Lon Nol by joining with his former opponents in the Communist Party of Kampuchea, becoming the figurehead of an exiled Beijing-based Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK) and its armed forces (FUNK), which gradually gained control over the whole country during the bitter civil conflict that consumed Cambodia over the following five years.

It is estimated that a third of the population was displaced as rural people sought shelter in the cities. Much of the country’s infrastructure and livestock were destroyed, and there were high casualties suffered on both sides. Under such punishing conditions, the previously small-scale and scattered oppositions grew ever stronger until the forces of the GRUNK and FUNK gained total control over the country when they entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.

If Cambodian culture had been battered during the war years, it was driven close to extinction during the dark period of the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. As is widely known, the Khmer Rouge drove virtually all urban inhabitants into the countryside – not only out of the capital, Phnom Penh, but also from provincial cities and towns – and immediately shut down all state and non-government institutions, including educational and cultural ones, as well as the media.

The new regime did publish several magazines for cadres and a few elementary textbooks and did broadcast some overseas news bulletins, but citizens were not permitted to own any personal possessions except for a few clothes, and utensils, and certainly not radios. Therefore, they had to rely on official announcements and revolutionary songs reportedly broadcast incessantly through public address loudspeakers at work sites and communal dining sheds.

It is estimated widely that only some 10% of Cambodia’s artists and scholars survived this period. Many well-known personalities are reported to have been executed, starved to death or disappeared. Some hid their expertise and even sometimes their instruments, while a lucky few managed to endure either by concealing their artistic or cultured identity or by proving they were not Lon Nol soldiers. For instance, a star dancer performing the monkey role in the Royal Ballet, Pum Bunchanrath, who was able to prove he was not a Lon Nol soldier, was spared. They liked his dance, so instead of killing him, they had him perform for them nightly.

As to cultural diplomacy, this was reduced to occasional seemingly uninspired performances by small troupes in black revolutionary dress shown to visiting delegations either in meeting rooms in Phnom Penh or at work sites or in Leay Bour, the model village in Takeo, as shown in contemporary film footage.

Cambodian Arts – Back from the Abyss

 Strenuous revival efforts were undertaken immediately following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime on 7 January 1979, despite the difficult circumstances faced by the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), including a decade of continuing civil war as well as international boycott, sanctions and even denial of representation in the United Nations.

As early as the first month, the Ministry of Propaganda, Information and Culture was formed, initially led by Keo Chenda, a veteran politician and intellectual from the revolutionary current that had sought exile in Hanoi following the 1954 Geneva Accords. From mid-1981, the Ministry was led by Chheng Phon, a former actor, professor of dramatic arts and director of the National Conservatory of Spectacles.

The School of Fine Arts was reopened, even though its classrooms had been used to store fertiliser and shoes. Silversmith Sin Samai was appointed as the first dean. Former students, artists and even a few teachers straggled back to the School and were sent to scour the city for materials, documents and tools, and to seek out other surviving artists and artisans in the camps springing up around the city of returning residents.

Like the School of Fine Arts, the National Library had been used as a warehouse to store kitchen utensils and its grounds to raise pigs to supply the next-door hotel used during Democratic Kampuchea to house Chinese experts. (Contrary to many reports, most of the collection of books remained, although not in the best condition, having been pushed onto the floor to make way for plates, pots and pans).

The returning students, artisans and professors alike began to congregate around the former Preah Norodom Suramarit Theatre southeast of the Independence Monument and were soon allocated housing in the adjacent apartment blocks, known as the White and Grey Buildings, where they remained (at least in the White Building until its demolition in 2017). In 1980 the new government organised an arts festival, calling surviving artists to come to Phnom Penh to demonstrate their skills and pass them on to a new generation. Chea Samy, Soth Sam On, Em Theay, Ros Kong, Pich Tum Kravel, Menh Kossony, Vong Savay and Proeung Chhieng were among those who took up the call. In 1981 the first intake of 111 new dance students commenced their studies, and at the same time a massive project was undertaken to document all forms of “Cambodian arts” that had survived.

During these early years after war and genocide, Cambodia’s cultural diplomacy had an important domestic political purpose, as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea sought to demonstrate to the people throughout the country that it was an authentic Cambodian entity, refuting the allegation of being a Vietnamese puppet. Its propagation of its artistic credentials through tours demonstrated the revival of Khmer classical and folk dance as well as a range of theatrical and musical forms and instruments.

And it was not long before Cambodia’s famous international cultural diplomacy was resumed. A 1982 tour of the “-stan” countries of the Soviet Union was followed by a series of international tours in 1983 to Vietnam, Laos and Japan, 1986 to India, and 1990 to the United States and to Scotland to participate in the Edinburgh Festival. The Cambodian Dance Project organised a twelve-city tour of the USA in 2001, titled Dance: The Spirit of Cambodia. The Royal Ballet toured Europe a number of times, and the Khmer Arts Academy organised seven tours of the USA between 2003 and 2013, in which year Cambodian Living Arts organised a blockbuster festival in New York entitled Season of Cambodia, bringing 125 performing and plastic artists together for performances, exhibitions, and workshops.

The Age of Angkor: Treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia was the first major exhibition of ancient Khmer sculpture shown abroad, at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra in 1992, followed by Millennium of Glory in the United States, France and Japan in 1997 and others later in China and elsewhere.

Scholarships were offered to Cambodian students to the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries and Cuba, including those studying in the arts, such as composer Dr Him Sophy and clarinettist Loch (now Ikeda) Bonsamnang, who later returned to contribute to the country’s cultural revival.

In the 1990s a number of NGOs were formed in Cambodia with support from international donors and networks to participate in this effort. The flautist Arn Chorn-Pond returned from the US to found Cambodian Living Arts with a mission to provide surviving masters and students with financial support to enable transmission of their knowledge and skills to a new generation.

The internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Rithy Panh, returned from France to join veteran director Ieu Pannakar to establish Bophana Audio-visual Resource Center, which has an active role in production, training and screening as well as in archiving Cambodia’s audio-visual heritage. They have joined the Cambodian Film Commission to stage the Cambodian International Film Festival, now in its 9th year.

Alongside government sponsored troupes and the reconstituted Royal Ballet, an increasing number of independent groups were established, like Amrita Performing Arts and Khmer Arts Ensemble (now Sophiline Arts Ensemble), Sovanna Phum, the Apsara Arts Association, Phare Ponleu Selapak, Children of the Bassac, Epic Arts, Kok Thlok, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, and more recently New Cambodian Artists and Natyarasa.

 Cambodia in the International Cultural Heritage Community

 These long-standing activities of documenting, reviving and promoting Cambodian arts and bringing them to world attention were complemented by a different approach to cultural diplomacy as Cambodia began to play a role in the organised international cultural heritage community, mainly UNESCO. On 30 November 1991, the “Save Angkor” appeal was launched by UNESCO in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture and the National Commission for UNESCO of the State of Cambodia, following a request by former and future Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, who was by then Chairman of Cambodia’s Supreme National Council. The appeal welcomed “all kinds of assistance, cooperation and suggestions aimed at preserving this common cultural heritage for future generations”.

The response was overwhelming, and on 15 December 1992, Angkor was inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger. The International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of Angkor (ICC-Angkor, chaired by France and Japan, with HE Professor Azedine Beschaouch as its Scientific Secretary) was formed in 1993 to facilitate international assistance, which has amounted to more than $500 million through more than 70 projects from 20 countries and 30 non-governmental organisations. ICC-Angkor has been recognised by UNESCO as a model for international cooperation in preservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage. And the APSARA National Authority was established in 1995 to manage the huge site of hundreds of ancient temples and other monuments spreading over 401 km2.

In terms of achieving international recognition of Cambodian cultural heritage, two further sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List (Preah Vihear in 2008 and Sambor Prey Kuk in 2017), and the International Coordinating Committee for the Conservation and Enhancement of the Temple of Preah Vihear (ICC-Preah Vihear) was established, co-chaired by China and India. The campaign to inscribe the Temple of Preah Vihear was long and extremely challenging, and required consummate judicial as well as cultural diplomacy to succeed.

Cambodia has also made some progress in inscribing its intangible and documentary heritage on UNESCO’s other lists. Up to the present time some five elements have been inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (the Royal Ballet, Sbek Thom large shadow puppet theatre, Chapei Dong Veng musical instrument, Lkhon Khol male masked theatre and Tug-of-War games, the latter nominated jointly with other neighbouring countries). And two items of documentary heritage have been inscribed on the International Register of the MoW Programme (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives and the Panji Tales, jointly nominated with other countries), and the Reamker of Ta Krut on its Asia Pacific Regional Register, while the author of this article served as a member of the International Advisory Committee of the MoW Programme from 2013 to 2018 and is currently a member of the Asia-Pacific Regional Register Sub-Committee.

Cambodia successfully stood for elections as a member of the World Heritage Committee in 2009, as Vice-chair in 2010 (Dr Ros Borat), and then in 2012 HE Dr Sok An was elected as Chair. Cambodia went on to host the 37th Session in Cambodia in July 2013. This was a glittering occasion – the largest international conference held in Cambodia to date, with nearly 1,500 delegates meeting in the Peace Palace of Prime Minister Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen in Phnom Penh and the closing ceremony in Siem Reap.

The event was followed by the first World Conference on Tourism and Culture (Siem Reap, 4-6 February 2015) which brought together, for the first time, experts from UNESCO, the UN World Tourism Organization and travel agents and operators. While periodic efforts have been made to document and preserve what is left of Cambodia’s urban architectural heritage, not only in Phnom Penh but also in some of the smaller cities, these have made little headway in the face of the combined pressures of urban development and lack of heritage protection planning and controls.

Cambodia has also been seen in some of UNESCO’s other cultural heritage governing and advisory bodies. In 2015 HE Chan Tani was invited to make a presentation to the Assembly of Parties to the 1970 Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property on Cambodia’s recent  success in securing the return of a number of significant items, most notably seven huge statues stolen from the Prasat Chen Temple at Koh Ker during the early 1970s that were held in various galleries and auction houses, and a collection of gold jewellery. HE Ket Sophann, Cambodia’s then Ambassador to UNESCO, was elected as Chair of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to the 1954 Convention for two consecutive terms (2017 and 2018).

Following the untimely death of Samdech Vibol Panha Dr Sok An on 15 March 2017, responsibility for the government’s authority over and management of all Cambodia’s cultural heritage properties and activities was transferred from the Office of the Council of Ministers to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, led by HE Dr Phoeurng Sackona.


This necessarily brief outline of the history of Cambodia’s cultural diplomacy is intended to give an appreciation of the deep attachment and pride of her people in their cultural heritage and the efforts that they have made in order to bring it back to life during the 40 years since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime on 7 January 1979.

Only since the ending of the Khmer Rouge as a military and political organisation at the end of 1998, made possible through the Win-Win policy that brought peace throughout the country, has this cultural revival reached a new qualitative level, enabling Cambodia today to regain its place as a noted player on the world’s cultural stage, and the fitting host for the launching of the Asian Cultural Council in January 2019, as well as its Secretariat, as the latest initiative in this ongoing effort of cultural diplomacy. And Cambodia is now preparing for its next leading role in late 2020 as host and organiser of the ASEM Cultural Festival, part of the 13th Asia-Europe Summit).

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.