PRESERVING THE PIECES OF THE KHMER CULTURE

Silhouetted against the rays of the setting sun, young dancers sway like nimble shoots of bamboo. Their hands repeat slow, intricate gestures of the ancient Khmer classical dance.

The yes of 10,000 fellow refugees follow the dancers' graceful steps in this welcome interruption of the daily existence in the refugee holding center of Khao I-Dang, just 10 miles from the Thai-Cambodian border. It is a life governed by the needs of survival -- little more than food and water for the 80, 000 refugees jammed into a postage-stamp corner of Thailand only one-by-two miles square.

Amid the famine and squalor, however, there is another fight for survival -- the survival of the Khmer culture. In Khao I-Dang the refugees are trying to pick up the pieces of their rich but often ravaged cultural legacy.

Thousands of enthusiastic youngsters are learning the dance steps of their ancestors -- in nothing more than makeshift refugee tents -- through the help of tutors. Spontaneous performances sometimes spice the grim monotomy of refugee life.

The Khmer ballet has gone through trying times before. The ancient dance troupe was almost lost more than 50 years before Columbus arrived in the Western world, when Thai invaders ravaged the ancient and once-flourishing Khmer kingdom of Angkor in what is today northwest Cambodia.

The conquerers enslaved the royal Khmer dance company in 1431, carrying dancers back to Thailand. The ballet managed to survive, however, and in the early years of this century Thai dance tutors helped rebuild the ballet and return it to Khmer society.

The Khmer Royal Classical Ballet, as it was called, regained much of its stature 20 years ago, partly through the financial support of former Cambodian head of state, Prince Narodom Sihanouk. After his exile in 1970 the company deleted the word "Royal" and became part of the Fine Arts University in Phnom Penh, where more than a thousands students studied dance.

The status of the Khmer Classical Ballet reached a high point in 1971 when President Nixon invited the troupe to the United States for a three-month tour. The company was also becoming more and more popular inside Cambodia.

But the decades of cultural achievement were crushed with the onset of Pol Pot's devastating rule in April 1975. Pol Pot forces killed many members of the dance company, while others fled to work in the countryside.

The Vietnamese forces that ousted Pol Pot in December 1978 are, in contrast with their predecessors, encouraging Buddhism. But few of the Khmer monks who had helped educate the children and preserve the Khmer culture survived Pol Pot's brutal reign. More than 2,000 Buddhist monasteries existed when came to power. Today there are fewer than 20. Partly for this reason, some Khmer refugees feel their culture is doomed.

The magnificent 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat (part of Angkor) was plundered both by the forces of Pol Pot and by the Vietnamese. The ancient "Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas" now holds only a handful of statues. The others were either destroyed by Pol Pot forces or sold to dealers.

The gnawing question of individual survival contributes to the destruction. Pieces of pottery, brass pots, stone heads broken from ancient statues, and other treasures are sold in Khao I-Dang by refugees desperate for money.

Despite this, the Khmer culture is alive in the camp -- some say even growing. Besides the spontaneous performances there are small dance classes where young Khmer such as Hou Chenda and her sister, Hou Bopha, resiliently imitate their teachers. "I buried my flute so it wouldn't be taken away," recalls Hou Chenda of the Pol Pot years. She says it would have been destroyed if discovered. "I didn't want to get in trouble for having it."

"Before, we never worked less than 12 hours a day," adds Hou Bopha. "Now I like to learn classical dancing."

More than a thousand children line up for classes every day in Khao I-Dang. Inside a row of flapping tents students are rediscovering their cultural heritage with the help of a handful of dedicated teachers such as Meng Hak Lao. She fears Cambodia will become a Vietnamese province, that one day the Khmer culture will be completely swallowed up.

"We have to start this school no matter how long or short this camp will last ," she declares. "You know, the moment is forever."

There is no lack of cultural awareness among these children. The depth of past losses and uncertainty of the future is painfully reflected in their faces and often grim stories.

Kuch Keam, for instance, doesn't want to remain in Thailand. The 14-year-old has watched the Vietnamese invade Laos and his native Cambodia. Now he sees a Thai Communist guerrilla group operating. He doesn't put much stock in trade agreements between his country and Vietnam.

"TWenty-five years is a long time," he says, referring to one such agreement. "Maybe everything will become Vietnamese after that."

Another 14-year-old, Sivan Tan, had to trek through heavy forest and live off the land for three days before reaching Khao I-Dang. She recalls working 16 hours a day during the Pol Pot regime.

"We never had any fun. I was even afraid to laugh," she recounts. "Our greatest treasure, Angkor Wat, has been ruined and parts stolen first by Pol Pot and then the Vietnamese. Our culture is finished."

Shrey-Nhim is less pessimistic. He is willing to return to his Cambodian homeland, but only if the Vietnamese leave. In the refugee camp he finds time to study and play volleyball, advantages not always available in the past.

During the Pol Pot years, he says, he plowed fields and dug irrigation ditches 18 hours a day -- sometimes by moonlight. Pol Pot's forces killed his mother because she was a nurse.

"They tried to kill all the knowledgeable people," Nhim says. "The children worked as hard as the parents. I like very much to play soccer and volleyball, but I never dared to under Pol Pot. Besides we never had time."

Deth-Chhoeun, a youngster who speaks French and English, translates for relief agencies at Khao I-Dang. "I had to hide the fact that I could speak foreign languages from the Pol Pot forces. Otherwise I would have been killed," he says.

"The Pol Pot enemy would send only two people to a nearby lake to catch fish for 300 people," he continues. "In my village of 7,000 people, only 1,500 are left. Most died of starvation.

"Once when we were desperate for food, we sold three diamonds for a kilo [2.2 pounds] of rice. We had to do it secretly because we would have gone to jail if we had been caught." Deth thinks the Vietnamese are "a little better." "They do feed the people who cooperate with them."

Like all the children, Deth wants to go to the US to study and live. Despite past atrocities, these young Khmers do hold hopes for a better future. Where they will grow up remains an unsolved problem.

But for today -- and unknown tomorrows -- they struggle inside Khao I-Dang's barbed wire for their own survival and the survival of an ancient and proud culture.

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