The Kingdom of Cambodia was established in 1993 after suffering the Vietnam War, the horrors of Pol Pot and his regime, civil war and countless rebellions. The reconstruction of this country has been supported by around 3,500 different international non-government organizations (NGOs), working in many fields, from the environment, to infrastructure, human rights and fighting poverty. (*1)
The field of art culture is no exception, with many international and local NGOs active in it, such as Cambodian Living Arts which works to preserve traditional art and support young artists, Amrita Performing Arts, a company which is creating a new method of expression through a combination of traditional expression and contemporary dance, and Epic Arts which seeks to support the expression of youth with disabilities (many of these organizations have the founding members as directors and see participation from members from many countries, and the members simultaneously set up non-profit organizations in their own countries to collect donations). Due to this, many non-profit organizations in Cambodia are highly organized and use foreign donations to employ a large staff.
One such art-related NGO is Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a school founded in 1994 to spread art education in an impoverished area. Furthermore, Phare, the Cambodian Circus, the social enterprise (*2) founded by PPS in 2013 succeeded as a tourism business based on an original, uniquely-Cambodian circus. Just as PPS means “a light shone by art” and Phare means “the beacon” in the Khmer language, both organizations work to shine a light of hope into the lives of many young people. The following is an interview with Dara Huot, who has served as CEO of Phare since 2013.
The beginning of Phare
Phare, the Cambodian Circus (Phare) has been presenting original work every day since 2013 at its own big top in Siem Reap, where tourists come to see Angkor Wat, and functions as a social enterprise to raise funds from ticket sales. Can we begin with how the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), which offers arts and education to the unprivileged community, created Phare, the Circus? How did it all begin?
The story of Phare is indeed quite a tale. It is hard to imagine that what it has grown into today had such a humble beginning. In 1986, a young French art teacher named Veronique Decrop volunteered to work at refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and taught arts to the children to help them cope with trauma.
In 1991 when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, all refugee camps had to be closed, and those who did not migrate to a third country were urged to return to Cambodia. Thousands of people who had left their land and property before the war were unable to reclaim ownership when they returned. Having their homes and land taken away, many of these former refugees decided to settle in Battambang near the Thai border, thinking they might need to escape again should another war start. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, those who had knowledge, those who could speak foreign language, teachers, doctors, government staff, writers, singers and musicians were the first to be killed. We don’t know the exact number, but it is believed that 90% of intellectuals in Cambodia were killed. When it was liberated, we found our nation traumatized, paralyzed, and filled with women and children. Those who could read and write started to teach others, because we had lost all our teachers. The young generation did not even know their own country because many of them had spent close to 10 years in refugee camps. Some promised to travel by foot to meet each other again without knowing how far away each city was. This was year zero for Cambodia.
Read the complete interview by Mio Yachita with Phare’s CEO Dara Huot on the Performing Arts Network Japan website.
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