Why is Cambodia so laser-focused on cultural preservation? And why do Cambodian artists today find themselves doing an arduous balancing act between staying true to a mandated cultural heritage, and their creativity? Censorship of art is the flipside of the cultural preservation coin, and how this coin is thrown depends heavily on the generation of the coin-flipper. Let us embark on a little journey to better understand the different forms of cultural preservation, what different generations of policymakers and civil servants have to do with it, how arts censorship feeds into a wider policy narrative of peace, and what the future might hold for Cambodia’s arts and culture.
Tiers of Preservation
Cambodia’s approach to cultural policy has one clear priority: the preservation and safeguarding of its cultural heritage. As the only country in the world with an ancient structure on its national flag, that’s hardly a surprise. But these cultural heritage preservation efforts have multiple facets and varying levels of possible governmental control:
i) Tangible Cultural Heritage
In this category we are talking about the built and archaeological heritage of the country – its ancient temples, its exquisite statues and carvings, its brilliant objects you’ll find in museums across the world. These elements of Cambodia’s tangible cultural heritage, led by the imposing Angkor Wat temple complex, serve as a great source of pride as well as a major marker of national identification for many Cambodians. These elements are also the central attraction for tourists, and fuel a not-insignificant share of many Cambodians’ incomes. The sheer size and seeming abundance of tangible cultural heritage in the country, with its impact on identity and economy, might explain the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ current policy focus on preserving these home assets and pursuing restitution for those that have been illicitly trafficked.
ii) Intangible Cultural Heritage
Developed in times gone by, refined through the ages, and yet much harder to hold on to, are assets of Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage. This category encapsulates the manifold music, dance, and theatre forms, such as smot, robam khbach boran, and lakhon khol, as well as martial arts, games, celebrations and rituals, and the vast crafts ecosystem. Oral transmission and tight-knit teacher-student relationships are the traditional mode of preservation for many of these intangible cultural heritage assets, opening them up to changing creative dynamics over time. However, safeguarding does not just mean preserving these arts for future enjoyment; they also serve as a straw to grasp on to a period of positive memories, as a lot of cultural knowledge and skills disappeared along with their custodians during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This might explain the often rather narrow interpretation of what a certain art form should and should not look like.
Young dancers performing at Bonn Phum, April 2018. Image credit: Sunitha Janamohanan
iii) Cultural norms and traditions
Values, behaviours, and personal expressions are the culture you see every day, in public and in private, displayed by everyone around you. That makes cultural norms and traditions much harder to control, engineer, steer, and police. These determine and reflect how people engage in society, how they choose to present themselves, even guide their opinions and decisions. Fundamentally, they also create a frame for what is and is not deemed acceptable, including such concepts as authority, confidence, and critique. A lot of implicit cultural policy decisions in Cambodia across ministerial portfolios are designed around moral education, and to streamline a certain cultural narrative that promotes a set of supposed national traditions, a national culture, and social morality.
Ultimately, it comes down to the people and how they engage with the world around them. Tangible cultural heritage can be preserved, restored, and promoted, as we can see at Angkor Wat, Sambor Prei Kuk, or the National Museum in Phnom Penh, but people are rarely affected directly. For intangible cultural heritage, support mechanisms can be put in place, such as ratifying the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, or establishing the Cambodian National Culture Day. Yet, there is only a small group of people actively benefiting from these measures. When we talk about culture, norms, and traditions, however, with a population of some 17 million to deal with, governance easily turns into an insurmountable task.
Cambodia is, to varying degrees and successes, engaging in all three tiers of cultural preservation. To be clear, so are most countries in the world, though some more and others less explicitly. What stands out in Cambodia is that most cases of arts censorship recorded here are actually related to the country’s cultural protection and preservation efforts, as data from an ArtsEquator research project across Southeast Asia confirms. For instance, in 2017, distribution for Hollywood action film Kingsman: The Golden Circle was prohibited, for portraying Cambodia’s ancient temples in a bad light. Between 2015 to 2016, dance company New Cambodian Artists was unofficially banned from performing within the Angkor Archaeological Park for “not being Cambodian enough”. In 2022, the producers of the Miss Grand Cambodia pageant were officially reprimanded for “obscene content that bordered on nudity” and activities “contrary to Khmer traditions and morality”. Often, context is key, not the heritage or cultural expression itself.
Is censorship, then – whether in the form of cuts, distribution bans, re-education, or encouraged public apologies – an actual strategy to support the country’s cultural preservation? And why is that so? As Cambodian scholar and gallery owner Reaksmey Yean points out in his article Artistic Freedom in Cambodia: When Legal Safeguards Are Not Enough, the legal framework for arts censorship in Cambodia is weak. Many decisions are made ad hoc in reaction to public outcry or an official complaint, or built on vague preservationist language in policy documents such as the 2014 National Policy for Culture, the 2016 Code of Conduct for Artists, or the 2016 Sub-Decree on the Management of Film Industry. This suggests that there might be less policy and more personality at play.
It is important to understand that censorship of arts and culture is not necessarily an us-vs.-them scenario. In fact, quite a few ministerial decisions to restrict access or invite artists for a session of moral education to prevent future cultural mishaps, are carried or even demanded for by members of the public. The paternalistic role of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (and occasionally the Ministry of Information) in policing cultural content is welcomed by a significant portion of the population, especially when it comes to hurt national pride, protecting children from drugs and guns, or simply the desire to retain what happy memories of an idealised culture still remain from times gone by.
A lens that might help us understand some of the underlying reasons and rationales of censorship and its supporters can be found in communication specialist and researcher Darathtey Din’s theorisation of generations in Cambodia. Distinct generational experiences in the political and cultural environment of their times, and of course their differences, might explain why public servants make certain decisions when it comes to cultural content, and why there is both support and disagreement.
Table data reproduced from Din, Darathtey (2020). “Cambodian Identity, Culture, and Legacy”. In Deth, Sok Udom et al. (Eds.), Cambodia 2040: Culture and Society (pp. 12-37). Future Forum and KAS Cambodia. Graphic by Sarah Tang.
Ministries in Cambodia are organised into relatively strict hierarchies, and seniority demands and receives great respect. The higher echelons of public decision-making power will, thus, consist of a lot of people from Cambodia’s Generation X. Those that have lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, experienced the cruelties of war, were educated in public administration techniques first by Vietnam and then by the Soviet Union, all while rebuilding a country so fundamentally traumatised by years of violence, hunger, death, and destruction – they are now the people in the highest offices in the country. A generation that has sacrificed a lot, but also possesses dear memories of a Cambodia in its often-termed golden era, is now drafting the laws that will determine the future of the country. According to Din’s classification, these unique generational experiences extend to their perception of culture, their art preferences, and their policymaking choices.
Stability & Peace
In December 2018, an imposing obelisk-like structure in the north of Phnom Penh was inaugurated to commemorate the end of Cambodia’s civil war 20 years prior. The Win-Win Memorial is a monument dedicated to a policy of delivering peace to the country, the architects of which sit in the Cambodian People’s Party’s Central Committee – this includes high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Following a campaign by the Prime Minister in 2020, the slogan អរគុណសន្តិភាព (“orkun santepheap”, translated as “thank you peace”) is now ubiquitous in public life. However much controversy there may be around the means of delivering Cambodia’s peace, stability and the absence of open violent conflict on a large scale are in fact a key policy desire of many – predominantly older – Cambodians. On closer examination, cultural preservation fits right into this win-win policy.
Preservation is generally understood as keeping something safe from unwanted change, such as decay or decontextualisation, even Disneyfication. Preservation means providing continuation of culture that was partially lost or remained on the brink of extinction for years; it maintains a sense of stability. And in the sense of the win-win policy, stability equates to peace. “Full peace”, to quote the Prime Minister, is the ultimate goal. In reverse: peace is achieved through stability, which in turn is achieved through preserving a manageable status quo, including cultural preservation in all its three tiers. In academic terms, this is referred to as “negative peace”.
What artists in Cambodia have experienced over the past decades is symptomatic. There is no maliciousness toward artists, in fact quite the opposite (even if it doesn’t always translate into ensuring their livelihoods). Neither are there blanket bans or much proactive control of the content or form of artistic products. Arts censorship in Cambodia is simply a responding tool in a much larger policy exercise of maintaining a cultural environment that is both cherished and manageable. Any attempt at changing this situation, which arguably is in the artist’s nature, becomes an inherent challenge, not just to the country’s heritage, but to the overall peace project that is to be protected and preserved by all means necessary.
Positive Peace and Generational Shifts
What if we moved from a notion of responsive negative peace, to proactive positive peace? What if we maintain peace as the highest goal, but instead of the absence of instability maintained through preservation-driven censorship approaches, we create something joyful and celebratory, something that unites and catalyses, something reaffirming yet dynamic? “Positive peace” is a holistic approach to peace that includes, among other factors, freedom of expression, free flow of information, high level of human capital, and a healthy business environment.
Let’s reverse-engineer this real quick. With a notion of positive peace, change does not have to be dangerous but instead should be encouraged. A policy environment that responds to society’s dynamism rather than trying to curtail it, will eventually build responsible citizens who actively contribute to building peace. Instead of drawing from cultural heritage alone, stability can be derived from open and communal engagement with the many different cultures, and by appealing to their diverse and multiple identities. In fact, encouraging and actively supporting diverse cultural expressions can be a central vector through which stability, peace, and development is unlocked.
Cambodia has a rich tapestry of artists, collectives, and arts organisations that address exactly this dimension. They don’t just challenge the “what” but even more so the “how”. Cambodia’s latest rap wunderkind VannDa reframes what national identity means to him. Dancer and choreographer Prumsodun Ok renegotiates the place of gender in classical dance. Inclusive dance company Epic Arts shatters expectations of what ability signifies in the performing arts. Arthouse filmmaker collective Anti-Archive challenges concepts of amateurism and professionalism in acting and directing. Youth festival Bonn Phum reimagines what the presentation of traditional arts can look like. In one way or another, all of them draw from the rich cultural heritage of Cambodia, thanks to the many preservation efforts, but also due to their own boldness and creativity.
Cambodia is currently experiencing a natural generational shift. Generation X is slowly retiring, making way for Generation Y to make its mark. With the civil service in particular, this might bring about some incremental change. There won’t be a hard shift away from the overall preservation-peace policy, since Gen Y has also grown up with their parent generation’s narrative. But their confidence and hope, their tech savviness, and the education opportunities they were afforded, might allow them to moderate, negotiate, and mediate these debates around cultural preservation and invest more in today’s creativity. There is a unique opportunity here to relegate restrictions of cultural products to being a last resort, and instead encourage dialogue on what cultural preservation and peace can mean and achieve in contemporary Cambodia. Because today’s creativity is the heritage of tomorrow.
Writer’s Statement : I am a foreigner living in Cambodia. I am an admirer of the country’s incredible cultural heritage, which many actors – including the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts – are fighting hard to preserve and safeguard. I am also a staunch supporter of the many contemporary artists and diverse cultural expressions of today’s Cambodia. As a cultural policy geek, and research and evaluation consultant, I work with non-governmental and governmental actors alike, all in the pursuit of supporting their aspirations for the development of Cambodia’s arts, heritage, and creative industries. I am writing from a place of observation and genuine optimism, and I believe that honest co-operation of all the different stakeholders will show the path that will guide us.
About the author(s)
"Kai Brennert is the Founder of edge and story, an evaluation, research and policy consultancy at the intersection of culture and sustainable development. Currently based in Cambodia, he has worked in more than 20 countries across four continents on partnerships, strategy and evaluation in arts, culture, and the creative industries. Kai is also the author of curious patterns, a newsletter that explores current issues and policies in the field of arts, impact, international cooperation and sustainable development."