Phloeun Prim - "Cambodia Had to Start from Scratch"




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Apr 24, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Phloeun Prim - "Cambodia Had to Start from Scratch"

Executive Director of Cambodian Living Arts talks about rejuvenating Cambodian culture and bringing it to the world Phloeun Prim delivers his presentation to participants of session 532

“The West still sees Cambodia through the Killing Fields,” explains Phloeun Prim, the executive director of Cambodia Living Arts, in an interview during the session Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts, held at Schloss Leopoldskron by Salzburg Global Seminar in April.

“It’s funny; I was talking to some producer in the US to bring them to Cambodia to do a documentary. And even today they talk about the last image they see when they think of Cambodia and it is this image of the killing field. 'That field' they ask – and Cambodia is the only country that is defined by a killing field.”

Prim, who was born in Cambodia, but lived in Canada from the age of three, moved back to his homeland in 1998 as part of a European Union project to reunite artisans with their heritage and culture. Since then, Prim has developed his interest in social entrepreneurship, which has helped him to encourage young artists in Cambodia to explore their traditional roots.

“I think so often students that will want to study arts in countries will be the poorest students. What I want to be able to prove is that you can create a career out of your arts, whether that is by presenting your traditions or creating new work. The economic development is to give the motivation for artists to pursue the work that they are doing so that they don’t think there is no future for that and in fact if we create this future, we inspire them and if artists can play that important role of being the voice and expression of a nation I think it is how we build society and strong society.”

Strong societies function by becoming self-sustainable and by adapting to their environments. For Prim, he first explored this through what is now Artisans d’Angkor. Since its launch, the group of 50 artisans has now turned into a company employing over a 1000 artisans and staff that distribute high quality crafts in Cambodia and around the world, allowing artists to explore their culture  and earn a living.

“I think there’s a fine balance in between your heritage and contemporary expressions, because I think art is a living culture and for me I have a strong belief in living arts, because it lives and evolves.”

“Our focus is on looking at the model of the socio-entrepreneurial where these arts can sustain a living because I think in the end its about how you bring back the identity in the recovery phase, you then transmit that knowledge because of the oral tradition, and you build a capacity of these artists and the sector but you want to look at that in a sustainable way that will continue. So we are helping them to think about economic development through some of our programs on creative industry looking at ways these arts can sustain and generate income and then develop and regenerate themselves.”

The regeneration of the arts in Cambodia is no easy feat. Just as the idea of the Killing Fields has become a synonymous image for the genocide that took place, it has also come to represent a close death of the traditional Cambodia, a place of dance, song, oral customs and temples. Between 1975 and 1979, during the Khmer Rouge’s years of terror, 90% of the artists living in Cambodia – like much of the educated class – were systematically targeted and killed, really pushing back and limiting cultural activity in the country. This led to the creation of Cambodian Living Arts in the late 1990s, when founder, human rights activist and artist, Arn Chorn-Pond decided to invest in disappearing arts. He felt that if the cultures were allowed to die out, this would be another ‘victory’ for the Khmer Rouge.

“Arn Chorn-Pond’s vision, because of the strong, oral traditions of Cambodian performing arts, felt that if there is nothing that is done, those masters who survived (and there were only a few of them) would die with their skill. So within a generation, Cambodian identity and culture would be lost forever. So we set up classes in the countryside, created schools without a wall, asking and engaging young generations of Cambodians so connecting the elder and the younger. Since we started, there’s a whole new generation of emerging artists that have come out of our program, but also the country can be seen to be moving forward.”

Artists are often seen as a marker of the cultural freedoms and developments within a country. Their right to publish or work, and the environment in which it is created reflects on the progression (or regression) of a country. This is part of the reason given behind the Khmer Rouge’s targeting of artists.

“Artists represent the voice of nations and also I think it was a strong rejection from the Khmer Rouge of this Western influence of expressions. Just looking to the history of Cambodia, the period before the Khmer Rouge was very intense around the border with the Vietnam War, and the US influence and then the US bombing Cambodia.  

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to bring back the sense of identity and having everyone equal. They wanted to have everyone in a society that is based on the work with the earth and so agriculture and peasantry, rural people with no religion, no culture and no education. The extent of the tragedy afterwards I would refer to year zero for Cambodia; we had to start from scratch.”

In his attempts to reconcile the image of Cambodia before and after the massacres, Prim uses his self-coined term, the “two Ts” – temples and tragedy. By considering the two different images, he believes that people can measure how far Cambodia has come in terms of recognising its past and moving on from it. The problem is often a generational divide, marked by how 75% of the population are under the age of 35.

“What it is important for Cambodians themselves is to be able to move beyond that tragedy for the generation who lived through it, and for the new generation it is to understand the past and the memory because even the generation that haven’t lived through this are psychologically effected by it because of their parents.”

To facilitate discussion, there needs to be an open forum for exchange. This is why Prim launched a living arts festival, Seasons of Cambodia, which had its inaugural tour last April. The festival brought hundreds of Cambodia artists, from painters to dancers to singers and beyond, to New York City for a six-week festival that highlighted the array and diversity of Cambodia beyond the Killing Fields on an international scene. The project was really intense and ensured that Cambodians collaborated and shared their experiences across perceived divides to learn together.

“To regain identity, I think one of the basic human needs is that generation connection. I think we often tend to, with this world of technology and advancements, we often forget about the oral transmissions, but it is where I think the transfer is at the most [important] in terms of social, cultural behaviour of human being from generation to generation and so what we have provided is really that opportunity to connect the old master and the really young generation of Cambodians.”

Prim now hopes to invite NGOs and artists from around the world to experience Seasons In Cambodia so as they can experience the art culture in its unique environment firsthand.

Phloeun Prim was a session speaker at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts", which was sponsored by the Edward T Cone Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpage: