n 1979 Vietnam marched into Phnom Penh
and terminated Pol Pot’s insane mission to
transform Cambodia into a peasant society.
The world was shocked by horrific details of
the holocaust, powerfully encapsulated in
images of The Killing Fields and the thousands of Cambodians dying of starvation and disease. Eleven years on, the only Cambodian representative at the United Nations is a member of Pol Pot’s organisation, the Khmer Rouge. Amassing forces along Cambodia’s northern Thai border, the Khmer Rouge still wage war on Cambodia. The government spends 40% ofits resources on the war, and human losses, though impossible to calculate, are known to be high. On a recent visit to a hospital forty minutes outside Phnom Penh, Oxfam representative Judith Robertson was told that half the patients had been injured by Khmer Rouge mines.
Despite the fact that Vietnam has now withdrawn from Cambodia, the present government headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is accused of being a Vietnamese glove puppet. The United States, China, Britain and for that matter most of the world cannot forgive the fact that Cambodia allowed its neighbour to rescue it from its own apocalypse now. Cambodia licks its wounds in isolation. The only Third World country receiving no International United Nations Development aid, it also suffers diplomatic and trade embargoes with most other nations. All telecommunications must go via the Soviet Union, one of the few countries which has maintained links with Cambodia.
Nevertheless, Khmer people endeavour to rebuild their scarred and fragile society. An example of such motivation is the the Cambodian National Dance Company. Devastated during the dark years, the once ﬂourishing company had formed the king’s harem for hundreds ofyears. After Pol Pot evacuated the capital city under the false threat of an American attack, some 90% of the country’s artists and intellectuals lost their lives, most were systematically murdered by Pol Pot’s men. The dancers were high on the list because of their royal connections. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge. the few survivors of the company joined forces to revive and preserve the ancient art form.
Britain is the first Western country to be visited by the company in 30 years. Oxfam representative Judith Robertson enlisted the support of Strathclyde Regional Council and Glasgow District Council when she persuaded Glasgow 1990 to bring the company to Britain as part of its contribution to the Third World. WOMAD joined in the effort and on 6 June. after a year and a halfofendless complications, the company landed on British soil.
I discussed Cambodia’s plight with two representatives from the company, Pich Thum Kravel, director of the Department of Arts at the Ministry of Information and Culture, and Mr Penyeth. director of the School of Fine Arts. formed to train new dancers in the ancient discipline. Less than 24 hours on British soil, the two were very willing to talk, despite being at two removes, once by translator and twice by telephone.
“I consider this tour as a message for peace, for finding peace for Cambodia which has suffered a long time,’ begins Pich Thum Kravel. As our
After the Khmer Rouge’s devastation of their country, the Cambodian National Dance Company (considered descendants of heavenly dancing nymphs) are attempting to restore Cambodia’s cultural identity to its people through the medium of dance. Jo Roe examines
conversation takes shape, Mr Penyeth’s the hiStory Of their reiterates the point. ‘We are very tired of motions. CAMBODIAN-NATIONAL-
spending our blood, our ﬂesh, in killing and fighting. All the people of Cambodia have spent a lot of tears. We have lived under the bomb, under the shells, under the fighting and torture for nearly twenty years . . . We worry about the return ofthe Khmer Rouge regime. That is why in our tour we hope to give the world facts about Cambodia and the true heart of the Cambodian people, so the world can understand the situation.
‘Recently we watch the news on television and they talk ofthe ceasefire agreement that the three other Khmer factions agree to sign, but still the Khmer Rouge refuse to sign. That’s why I make an appeal to international opinion to help us destroy the Khmer Rouge faction. If the Khmer Rouge continue to fight because they refuse to sign the ceasefire, they will cause a lot of catastrophe to the country.’
Mr Penyeth', like every member of the dance company, has survived incomprehensible suffering.
‘When Pol Pot came in 1975 I lost all the members of my family, including my wife and children and parents-in-law. I was put in prison for one year and when I got out I ran away into the forest because I felt the Pol Pot regime could not last for long. I lived in the forest as a wild animal and then I started to fight against Pol Pot. I joined the United Front for defending the motherland. At the time I was working on radio so I could make announcements to all Cambodia. We tried to agitate their consciences that even though they lived with Pol Pot they would surely be killed one day. It would be better to die in the resistance. fighting back, rather than to die without fighting.‘
Like all Cambodians, members of the dance company take their turn in the local militia to defend themselves against the Khmer Rouge. Equally important is their effort to restore cultural identity to the people of Cambodia. ‘As I am myself an artist, I feel I have to preserve the culture, which is like a cement, to unify the spirit, so that we can revive the country,’ urges Pich Thum Kravel. Khmer court dance dates back to the beginning ofCambodian history. when, as legend has it, the original kings of ‘Kambuja’ copulated with heavenly dancing nymphs to keep the country fertile. Modern Cambodian dancers are considered descendants of those nymphs, whose images are carved on buildings all over the country. Today, the dancers are still sewn into elaborate costumes which have been painstakingly reconstructed from memory and a few tattered remains. Twenty-one dancers accompanied by five musicians will tour Britain, recreating the legends of Cambodian heroes and episodes from Hindu epics. including the Ramayana.
‘Out ofall the misery. people are seriously moving forwards and reviving their culture .’ marvels Judith Robertson. ‘The story ofthe dance company parallels the story of the whole of Cambodia because they have done it on their own, completely on their own with no outside help. and that has happened throughout the country. They have become self-sufficient in rice from having nothing in eleven years. with no aid except from what charities were able to provide and a bit of Soviet funding.‘
The Cambodian National Danee (‘ompany debut at the Old Athenaeam 'l'heatre. Glasgow [8-23 June before touring Britain aml/n'rlorming at the Ross Theatre. Edinburgh 1' J .l a/i'.
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