Unesco dances with controversy

Ven Rathavong / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Cambodia’s classic Lakhon Khol dance, which Thailand calls the Khon dance, which are both based on an Indian epic. Reuters

Cambodia has asked Unesco to register Lakhon Khol dancing and Bokator martial arts on its list of intangible cultural heritage.
 
If the request is approved, it would mean Cambodia could be eligible for grant assistance from Unesco, which provides funding for activities aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage.
 
According to a Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts statement published yesterday, a working group of officials has been preparing the applications since December.
 
“Documents relating to Lakhon Khol were sent to Unesco in the morning on March 29 and the organization acknowledged the application that afternoon,” the statement said, adding the Bokator application was sent on the same day.
 
Now the applications will be put through rigorous evaluation by international experts before being presented for approval at an intergovernmental committee meeting in 2018.
 
The ministry, meanwhile, organizing further applications for the traditional Khmer music Pleng Arak and silk weaving, the statement said.
 
Last June, a row erupted on social media after the Thai government announced it would be asking Unesco to recognize Khon dancing as part of its intangible cultural heritage.
 
Angry Cambodians argued the dance form was part of Khmer culture, while Thais claimed it originated in their country.
 
Khon dancing is very similar to Lakhon Khol. Both are based on the Indian epic, the Ramayana, and feature mask-wearing characters in elaborate costumes telling the story through dance and mime.
 
At the time, Thai Norak Satya, the spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, acknowledged the two dances had similarities, but said there were notable differences.
 
“It’s obvious that our neighboring country has a similar culture. But if we look closely, there are some differences,” he said. “The gesture in our Lakhon Khol is gentler.
 
“We cannot prevent other countries from having similar cultures as ours. It’s just like we cannot prevent other people from putting on the same clothes as ours.”
 
Speaking to Khmer Times yesterday, Mr. Norak Satya appealed for people to remain calm on social media and understand that Cambodia and Thailand share many likenesses.
 
“If we understand the culture of our country, there won’t be any disputes on this issue,” he said.  
 
Mr. Norak Satya said he expects Unesco to approve the applications, since the ministry has spent years preparing the necessary evidence and supporting documents.
 
If Unesco gives the go ahead, it would help promote and conserve Cambodian dance through funding for training and workshops, he said.  
 
The Thai cabinet last week approved its own proposal for Khon dancing and Thai massage to be held as intangible cultural heritage by Unesco.
 
Thai Culture Minister Vira Rojpojchanarat said the proposal will be subjected to a one-year consideration period by Unesco, prior to being presented to the inter-government commission for approval.
 
There is nothing to stop the dance form being registered as intangible cultural heritage in both countries. For example, Argentina and Uruguay share the tango dance as part of both their heritages on the Unesco list.
 
Unesco’s World Heritage Committee has already listed several local traditions as intangible heritage, including the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in 2003, the Sbek Thom shadow puppetry in 2005 and the tug-of-war game Teanh Prot in 2015.
 
Last year, Unesco certified the chapey dong veng guitar-like instrument as part of Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage, agreeing to provide more than $230,000 to support its protection and potential resurgence as an art form.
 
 The chapey is an instrument with two to four strings used for traditional music, and when combined with poems in Khmer, becomes the chapey dong veng.
 
The Angkor archaeological site was acknowledged as a World Heritage site in 1992, while Preah Vihear temple made the list in 2008.

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