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Q&A: Khmer New Year cancellation a learning experience

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Cambodian historian Professor Sambo Manara. KT/Siv Channa

In an unprecedented move, the government last week announced the cancellation of Khmer New Year holidays as it ramps up its efforts to curb the movement of citizens and slow the transmission of the coronavirus. While others lauded the pre-emptive measure, many workers in the capital who were looking forward to celebrating the New Year with their families were not so thrilled.

However, Cambodian historian Sambo Manara, in an interview with Khmer Times, said the cancellation of the most important holiday of the year is not something people should be upset about. In fact, he said the move presents a learning opportunity for aspiring leaders and will allow the people to see the nation’s strength and unity. 

KT: What can you say about the government’s decision last week to cancel Khmer New Year celebrations? Has it happened before in Cambodia?

Prof Manara: To be honest, this was a historic decision because never before in the Kingdom’s modern history has Cambodia cancelled Khmer New Year celebrations. But, it is also a must since the government needs to prevent public gatherings to contain the pandemic.


KT: Does that mean the Khmer New Year was celebrated even during the Khmer Rouge era?

Prof Manara: Yes, although in a very different way. Back then, the Angkar – as Khmer Rouge authorities called themselves – allowed people a little more rations and some dessert on Khmer New Year.

But I think it will be extreme to compare this year’s situation to the crisis during the Khmer Rouge period. Although the people this year were unable to get their usual three-day break or were not allowed to gather at pagodas as they used to in previous years, they are still free to celebrate in the safety of their homes.

I, myself, two days ago still went to a pagoda to bring food to the monks following Khmer tradition. The only difference is I maintained quite a distance from the monks and did not stay there for long.


KT: Do you think such a sudden decision has a negative impact on Cambodian culture and tradition?

Prof Manara: To some extent, it does. There are so many activities and rituals associated with Khmer New Year, which have been practised for so many years.

For example, people tend to go to pagodas to mound up “sand mountains,” which they believe will erase all their bad karma. They also shower the statues of Buddha to ask for blessings. However, neither of these could be found anywhere this year. Also, the children, who are now obsessed with smartphones, do not get to experience playing traditional games.

But I do not think missing all those can compare to how the country revived its New Year’s traditions after the civil war and the genocidal regime in the 1970s. Customs and traditions will remain for as long as we have written accounts and footages we can show to the younger generations.

On top of that, this crisis is not only happening in Cambodia but all over the world. For instance, Americans this year did not get to celebrate Easter, a festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus, due to virus. We have to bear in mind as long as people stay alive, all holidays and festivals can take a back seat. What’s most important is for everyone to do what they can to survive this pandemic.


KT: What can you say to those who were unable to meet their families during this year’s Khmer New Year?

Prof Manara: It is natural for people who live in the city to feel homesick, given the high value the society places on family. But, again, this is not exclusive to Cambodia. In every corner of the world, people are practising social distancing, with many families separated due to the coronavirus.

If you love your family, you should be patient at the moment because surely, you would rather be separated from your family for a while rather than forever.


KT: How do you think will this go down in Cambodian history?

Prof Manara: I believe it will be noted as a historic struggle between Cambodia and a deadly, invisible enemy. It will be a great achievement if we win the battle because this enemy is attacking every country on the surface and shows mercy to no one.

I have strong hope for Cambodia, which is one of the greatest survivors in world history. The Kingdom has been through many disasters and still, it endures.

Also, the cancellation will be a great learning experience for future leaders of the nation in case a similar crisis strikes. It can teach them the sacrifices which must be made for the public good.

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