Cambodia's Cultural Heritage is still at Risk

The Koh Ker palace remains relatively unknown

Published on 8 January 2013

Author(s): Searching for the Truth/Rud Hubbard

Type:   No January 2013

At first glance, there is little left of the once glorious ancient Royal Palace at Koh Ker. Jungle has overtaken the ancient stones expertly tiled roofs. Yet, buried under the jungle floor, the palace remains. With a bit of effort and a good guide, the outline of this monumental building slowly emerges from in between the trees. Despite its massive central temple and a far-reaching temple complex of stunning beauty and design, Koh Ker remains relatively unknown.

With the area’s landmines fully cleared only in the past few years and significant looting of its treasures Koh Ker remains off the beaten track. Through the hard work of Dr. Chen Chanratana the Founder/President of Kerdomnel Khmer Foundation, efforts to excavate the Royal Palace are beginning and the entire temple complex is slowly being recovered. This reclamation of the Royal Palace at Koh Ker offers a powerful example of the strength of Cambodia’s culture heritage.

The current state of Koh Ker is the result, in part, of the political and social upheaval Cambodia has experienced in recent history. The Genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge targeted much more than people. In addition to burying nearly two million of the countrymen and women, the Khmer Rouge sought to bury Cambodian culture as well. Through deliberate action and malign neglect, places like Koh Ker were lost to jungle, trapped in mine fields, and even actively destroyed.

This Cultural Genocide has long undermined the process of reconciliation and forgiveness in Cambodia. Today, as Cambodians work to move past the horrors of that period, Cambodia’s cultural heritage is likewise is re-emerging to play a significant role in achieving reconciliation for all Cambodians. In places like Koh Ker works are beginning to preserve and protect this heritage.

On January 4th, 2013, DC-Cam - together with The National Museum of Cambodia and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, broke ground on a very different type of excavation, but with the same goal of cultural preservation. Bringing together representatives from museums and cultural centers in all 24 Provinces, a new initiative was launched to share Cambodia’s rich culture heritage to all corners of the country.

For the past 15 years, it has been the mission of DC-Cam to preserve memory, promote Justice, and achieve reconciliation for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Working to provide documentation to the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, DC-Cam has helped to see this process of Justice realized. By documenting crimes of the Khmer Rouge era, memory and justice have grown together.

Reconciliation however, must go beyond justice for the Khmer Rouge’s worst perpetrators. If justice separates the guilty from the innocent and identifies perpetrators and victims, reconciliation is about bringing people together to build a better society. Achieving justice is a necessary step to bring to a close the terrors associated with the Khmer Rouge period and allows Cambodia to move forward. But, like clearing the land mines in Koh Ker, it is only the first step.

Art and culture must play an important role in reconciliation. In bringing together the key actors in Cambodian cultural preservation, DC-Cam hopes to reclaim the legacy of Cambodia’s culture heritage. DC-Cam’s vision, shared with the conference by Savina Sirik, is a network of robust museums throughout the country, allowing locals and foreigners alike to draw strength and inspiration from Cambodia’s culture and art. This process includes three broad initiatives.

First, together with the National Museum of Cambodia, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and museums in 24 provinces, DC-Cam will develop exhibits commemorating the Khmer Rouge period. Having this heritage available to all will facilitate reconciliation and provide education for younger generations to learn from the mistakes of the past. Second, DC-Cam will establish a permanent exhibit in Phnom Penh commemorating the forced transfer of urban populations to rural areas during the Khmer Rouge period.

Stories from Civil Parties are being collected and will be shared through this exhibit and in the provinces as well. This museum space will also serve to coordinate DC-Cams’s genocide education project, equipping younger generations with the tools needed to combat genocide and through knowledge of the past. Third, DC-Cam will help these provincial museums to expand their role protecting and sharing Cambodia’s cultural heritage.

During the all-day conference, a wide variety of stakeholders contributed to mark the beginning of this important new initiative. Opening speeches by H.E. Hab Touch, the Director General of the Department of Cultural Heritage and Kong Vireak, the Director of the National Museum of Cambodia set the tone for the conference. The day was certainly to be an important day in the cultural life of Cambodia. As the conference progressed Phann Nady and Lim Ky provided useful technical details on the process of identifying and archiving historical materials respectively. Christopher Dearing and Terith Chy discussed the dangers that continue to face Cambodia’s cultural treasures, in the forms of looting and neglect. A discussion period at the end of the day highlighted many of the challenges and opportunities faced by museums and cultural centers in Cambodia’s provinces. It was this closing dialogue that opened the doors for future collaboration.

During their presentation, Christopher Dearing and Terith Chy asked the gathered representatives if it was possible to have a country without culture? The implication was, what would happen to Cambodia if its cultural heritage is lost? Cambodia’s cultural heritage is still at risk. The ugly specter of cultural imperialism threatens to swallow Cambodia’s rich history in a sea of popular culture. One conference participant admitted that despite living in Phnom Penh, he had never even been to the National Museum. Yet, there at the conference, it made him proud to see the strength of his own culture, a strength he knew little about. DC-Cam and its partners hope to bring this culture awakening to Cambodians all across the country, combating cultural imperialism with education, resources and cultural outreach.

Cambodians suffered a great deal during the Khmer Rouge period and the wounds from that time are far from healed. Cambodia cannot afford to lose its cultural heritage. After all, the glories of Angkor and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge both make Cambodia the country it is today and both must be preserved if Cambodians are to achieve a better future. The ground that was broken at the National Museum of Cambodia at this conference was not the beginning of this process, but it was the beginning of a new period of collaboration and a new chapter in DC-Cam’s quest for Justice, Memory and Reconciliation. In Koh Ker, archaeologists hope to one-day reconstruct the beautiful Royal Palace on its ancient foundations. So too does DC-Cam hope to construct a future of reconciliation and hope on the buried foundations of Cambodia’s culture heritage.

Photos from the conference and Koh Ker temple:

Independently Searching for the Truth since 1997.

“...a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.”
Youk Chhang

A River Changes Course...

Back to previous page