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Art and Culture Program

SIDO in Cambodia by its co-operation with all relevant partners such as the Ministry of Culture and Art, NGOs, Universities, National museums and Art schools, have raised up its focus areas of work of the integrated projects which are related to those art and culture issues in way of promoting, integrating and upholding the prestige of each country where we work. These will be involved with the background and history, the collections, scholarships, renovation and construction, providing technical and human resources, art and painting, and types of dances and music instruments to the communities and institutions in a real need including trainings and workshops and other related activities.

The Unique Revolution
There is nothing unique about government-sponsored violence. There is, in fact, nothing especially unusual about widespread killing, or even genocide. The rallying cry heard in the wake of World War II -- "Never again!" -- is a noble sentiment, and not a reflection of reality. Ask the Indonesians, or the Timorese, or the Salvadorans, or the Rwandans, or the Albanians... or the Cambodians.
The regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia ranks as one of the most disastrous in modern history. It could be persuasively argued that it was, in fact, the worst.
It is important to understand the Cambodian revolution in context. Scholars currently investigating mass graves in Cambodia now estimate Pol Pot's three-and-a-half year regime led to the deaths of more than two million people. There were no precise statistics on the population of the country when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, but it is likely that the number of deaths represented between fifteen and twenty percent of the entire population.

Moreover, an important fact to remember regarding the Khmer Rouge period is that the death toll alone does not fully reflect the severity of their rule. In this century, there has probably been no other revolution which so completely altered the lives of an entire population. Literally overnight, entire cities were emptied. Property was abolished. Money became worthless. Homes and families were destroyed. Every aspect of every life was suddenly dictated by the new government. There was no transition period; hundreds of thousands of people... store clerks, factory workers, taxi drivers, cooks... suddenly became farmers. Thousands were executed immediately. Overnight, Cambodia became a nation of slaves. For every Cambodian old enough to remember the events of 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge reign would mark a turning point in their lives.

The extremism of the Khmer Rouge was not merely rooted in evil. It is doubtful that the Khmer Rouge was morally any worse than, for example, the right-wing death squads in El Salvador or Guatemala. A government which accepts state-sponsored terror as a legitimate method of enforcing order has already forfeited any claim to being just. Differences between such governments are merely differences of degree; the scale of the abuses does not change the essential nature of those abuses.

The question, then, is this: if the Khmer Rouge were morally no worse than many other governments, why were the consequences in Cambodia so much worse than in other countries?

What made the Cambodian revolution unique was not merely that the Khmer Rouge was brutal. The Cambodia revolution stands apart from other upheavals because the Khmer Rouge combined astonishing brutality with astonishing stupidity. For the most part, dictatorial regimes in other nations have moderated their policies for the simple reason that most understand that there are limits to human endurance. When conditions reach a certain level of severity, societies cease to function. There is a limit to how many "enemies" one can kill before the entire population begins to understand that everyone is at risk. Fear becomes palpable, and paralyzing. Moreover, the human infrastructure needed to enact change is decimated twice: first by the loss of life, then by the destruction of the spirit.

The Khmer Rouge created a government founded on doctrinaire delusions. They did not adapt their ideas to fit with the realities of their nation; instead, with the religious fervor of True Believers, they blinded themselves and silenced those who dared to speak out. The Khmer Rouge constantly stressed that "Angka" ("The Organization") was infallible. Consequently, suggestions for improving policies or work methods were seen as nothing more than veiled criticisms of the regime. Their constant search for "enemies" became a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who were not opposed to the regime in the beginning, were by the end.

Prior to 1979, many scholars dismissed the reports of mass killings in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese, the evidence of the disaster became undeniable. The true cost of genocide, however, will always remain unknown. We may know the number of deaths, but we will never know what has been lost. Imagine two million unique lives, every one cut short. Imagine what might have been.
The Khmer Language
The language of Cambodia, Khmer, belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages. Khmer uses a phonetic alphabet with 33 consonants, 23 vowels, and 12 independent vowels. Visually, the Khmer alphabet is similar to the Thai and Lao, and many words in these three languages trace their origins to common Pali or Sanskrit roots.

One significant difference is that Khmer is not tonal. In tonal languages, such as Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese, the same sound has one meaning when spoken in a high tone, and a different meaning when spoken in a low tone.

Modern written Khmer can take two forms; an "oblique script" used for handwriting and most printed texts, and a "round script," used for headings, titles, some religious texts, and other instances where certain words or phrases need to be emphasized.

Khmer writing begins on the top left of the page, and proceeds down and to the right. Cambodian writing does not use spaces between individual words; instead, spaces are used to denote the end of phrases or sentences.

The placement of the vowels in written Khmer can be confusing at first; vowels may follow or precede the consonants, or they may go above or below, or some combination of before, after, above, or below. The placement of each vowel can be seen in the graphic showing the 23 vowels. The light gray boxes indicate the placement of the consonants.

Khmer also includes 12 "independent vowels," which can exist without a preceding or trailing consonant. The independent vowels may be used as monosyllabic words, or as the initial syllables in longer words. Khmer words never begin with regular vowels; they can, however, begin with independent vowels.

Khmer numerals are also different, although Arabic numerals are being used with increasing frequency. There are also unique markings for Khmer punctuation, but modern Cambodian writing also incorporates several punctuation marks derived from Western typography.

A good introduction to the basics of the Khmer language is available on the Cambodia Language and Culture page, at the Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies website.
Sources: "Modern Cambodian Writing," Derek Tonkin, Phnom Penh, 1962.
The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History
The banyan tree grows throughout Cambodia. It may reach a height of over 100 feet, and as it grows, new roots descend from its branches, pushing into the ground and forming new trunks. The roots grow relentlessly; many of the ancient temples of Angkor have toppled as these roots have become embedded in the cracks and crevices between their massive stones. A single tree might have dozens of trunks, and it is often impossible to tell which the original is.

This is Cambodia today: a thousand intertwined branches, a thousand stories woven together, and a thousand currents of history swirling in different directions. To understand Cambodia in the present, it is necessary to look at Cambodia in the past.

Part One: The Seeds
In the early 1960s, to much of the outside world, Cambodia seemed to be an insignificant country. For Americans, it was known only as the site of the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat: a small, quiet nation sharing a border with Vietnam.

Vietnam, by contrast, was well known to Americans. The cold war was raging, and in the eyes of the American public the front line of that war was clearly marked by the boundary between the communists in the north, and the non-communists in the South. South Vietnam was perceived as the first domino; Cambodia was merely the next. The subtleties of history, the blurred lines of political fact and fiction were lost in the analogy.
If the Americans knew little about Cambodia, it is probably also true that the Cambodians knew little about America. The leader of Cambodia, however, fully understood what the American presence in Vietnam meant. Prince Norodom Sihanouk had led Cambodia since its independence from France in 1953. Formerly the King, he had abdicated the throne in 1955 to run in elections for head of state, and he had survived on the political stage through a mixture of political acumen and ruthlessness. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, Sihanouk realized that maintaining his rule would require a delicate balancing act. He could not afford to make enemies of either the Americans or the Vietnamese communists.
When the Vietcong began to use areas inside Cambodia as a sanctuary from which to launch guerrilla attacks into South Vietnam, Sihanouk's position became increasingly precarious. Keeping the Vietnamese out by force was scarcely an option; his own army consisted of fewer than 30,000 poorly equipped troops. In comparison, by the end of 1964 the Vietnamese communists were fielding an army of roughly 180,000. Sihanouk's reluctance to move against the Vietnamese was strengthened by his conviction that the communists would eventually be victorious.

To further complicate matters, Sihanouk's autocratic style of governing was beginning to alienate the more well-educated elements of Khmer society. The opposition from the left was particularly vocal, and Sihanouk began to rely more and more on repression to quell dissent. That repression was largely orchestrated by one of the most pro-American members of Sihanouk's government, General Lon Nol.
The leftists in Cambodia had originally concentrated on a political struggle against Sihanouk. By 1967, however, as it became clear that political opposition was both futile and increasingly dangerous, the Cambodian communists began to focus on armed struggle. They did not, however, constitute as serious threat to Sihanouk's regime. Even as late as 1969, the communists -- or, as Sihanouk derisively called them, the Khmer Rouge -- were estimated to have only about 2500 troops.

Though the Khmer Rouge was only a minor threat, the war in Vietnam was rapidly becoming a major one. The presence of the sanctuaries was a source of constant frustration for the Americans. At first, with rare and relatively minor exceptions, American forces did not pursue guerrillas beyond the border. Later, however, American commanders began to believe that the Cambodian sanctuaries were crucial for Vietnamese logistics, and that they also served as the headquarters for the communist war efforts throughout Vietnam. In February 1969, General Creighton Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, requested permission to attack Vietnamese troops inside Cambodia. President Richard Nixon quickly agreed, and on March 18, 1969, American B-52s launched the first of many secret bombing raids over Cambodia. Sihanouk had, in fact, confidentially told an American ambassador that he would not object if American forces engaged in "hot pursuit" of Vietnamese forces in unpopulated areas of Cambodia. But the extent of the attacks would later become a source of bitter recriminations. Former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would claim that Sihanouk was "...inviting this sort of pressure as a means of evicting these invading forces" from Khmer territory. Sihanouk himself would dispute that contention: "I did not know about the B-52 bombing in 1969... the question of a big B-52 campaign was never raised." In the end, the castigations of the politicians scarcely mattered. The war had come to Cambodia.

One year after the bombing began; Sihanouk made a mistake that would ultimately set the stage for disaster. Demonstrations protesting the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia broke out in Phnom Penh, the capital, while Sihanouk was vacationing in Paris. Although he was still fairly popular in rural areas, many Cambodians were losing patience with Sihanouk; they resented the corruption of his regime and his repression of dissent. Misjudging the extent of the discontent, Sihanouk declined to return to Cambodia. He left Paris and continued on to Moscow, and on March 18, 1970 -- one year to the day after the first U.S. bombing strike -- he was overthrown in a coup led by Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak. Sirik Matak quickly faded into the background. Lon Nol was the real power, and his regime was instantly recognized by Washington; the Americans surmised, correctly, that Lon Nol would permit more aggressive moves against the sanctuaries. The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to turn Sihanouk's ouster to their advantage. If the Prince could be persuaded to ally himself with his former enemies, the rebels would gain significant popular support. Determined to avenge his betrayal by Lon Nol, Sihanouk acquiesced. On March 23, he announced that he would join the Khmer Rouge in a bid to overthrow the new government. The battle lines were drawn.
Cambodia: Oral Histories and Biographies
The articles on these pages are based on first-hand accounts by survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Some are verbatim transcripts of interviews; others have been paraphrased or rewritten, but all accurately reflect the stories told by the principals.

Cambodian Refugee Admissions to the United States
The table below shows the number of Cambodian refugees admitted to the US each year between 1975 and 1998. Statistics are based on the fiscal year rather than the calendar year. The figures below include only Cambodians admitted as refugees.

Refugees are granted political asylum on the basis of a "well-founded fear of persecution," usually on the basis of race, religion, or political beliefs. The statistics in the table do not include persons coming to the US through normal means of migration, such as through family reunification programs, visa lotteries, marriage, et cetera.

Bear in mind that these statistics represent refugee admissions to the US, and not the number of persons fleeing Cambodia. The relatively small number of refugees admitted from 1976 through 1978 gives an indication of the difficulty of escaping Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The exodus out of Cambodia peaked in 1979-80, immediately after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. For the next thirteen years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians languished in UN-administered camps in Thailand. Most were considered "economic migrants" rather than refugees, and relatively few were eligible for resettlement in other countries. In 1993, the remaining camps were closed and last of some 370,000 persons were repatriated.

In the wake of Hun Sen's 1997 coup, refugees again streamed out of Cambodia; at the peak of the exodus some 75,000 Cambodians sought shelter in Thailand. The vast majority of these were repatriated to Cambodia in 1998 and 1999.
An outstanding resource for information on refugees is the US Committee for Refugees. The USCR provides clear and concise information on all aspects of the problems facing displaced persons and refugees around the world. USCR is also an excellent source for background information on the root causes of refugee crises around the world.

A note regarding the figures in the table below: although the table indicates that there were no Cambodians admitted to the U.S. as refugees in 1996 and 1997, a source at the U.S. Committee for Refugees, who provided the statistics, was uncertain whether or not the USCR had continued to track the figures for Cambodians during the relatively stable period prior to the 1997 coup.
Cambodian Refugee Admissions, 1975 - 1998
Year Refugee Admissions Year Refugee Admissions
1975 4,600 1987 1,539
1976 1,100 1988 2,805
1977 300 1989 1,916
1978 1,300 1990 2,166
1979 6,000 1991 38
1980 16,000 1992 141
1981 27,100 1993 22
1982 20,234 1994 6
1983 13,115 1995 1
1984 19,851 1996 0
1985 19,097 1997 0
1986 9,789 1998 108
    TOTAL 147,228
Source: US Committee for Refugees; Refugee Reports, 12/18/87 and 12/31/94

For an in-depth look at the U.S. response to refugees from Cambodia, two books are highly recommended: The Quality of Mercy by William Shaw cross (Simon and Schuster, 1984) and Calculated Kindness by Gil Loescher and John A. Scanlan (Free Press, 1986). Both books provide invaluable insight for scholars seriously interested in refugee assistance.
Khmer Art
In the aftermath of the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge, many observers feared that Khmer art would be all but lost. In recent years, however, the tireless efforts of Cambodian artists both in Cambodia and abroad have brought about a resurgence of both classical and contemporary Khmer art.

Dancing and Music
On this site, there are several photos of both Khmer classical dance and Khmer folk dance in the photo gallery.

Elsewhere on the web, there are several sites devoted to Cambodian music and dance. For Khmer music, Angkor Khmer Music has many MP3 files of popular and classical Cambodian music.

The Cambodian Court Dance Music Page is also of interest.

For information on Khmer dance, the Cambodian Classical Dance Page is a good source of general information.

Painting and Sculpture
Many impressive works of Khmer art can be seen in Phnom Penh's National Museum of Cambodia.

In the Oral History section of this site, you'll also find a short biography of artist Narath Tan, whose work reflects the classical styles and methods of traditional Cambodian art.

The work of artist Svay Pithoubandith, living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, similarly exemplifies the exacting detail of classical Khmer sculpture.

Cambodian artists who have lived abroad often absorb both Asian and Western influences. The result of this synthesis can be seen in the work of Monirith Chhea and Emmanuel Nhean.

To view slideshows of each artist's work, click the links below.
  • Narath Tan
  • Svay Pithoubandith
  • Monirith Chhea
  • Emmanuel Nhean
Artists are encourage to submit their work for inclusion in this site's online gallery. For further information, contact
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