Reflections – Khmer New Year, the Pandemic and Myanmar

Dear Friends,

One year ago I put pen to paper to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on Cambodia’s arts sector and our work at CLA.

Spring is a special time in Cambodia. Last month we celebrated our New Year, Vesak – a day commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha – and the Royal Ploughing Ceremony to predict the coming year’s harvest. April also holds the anniversary of Phnom Penh falling to Khmer Rouge control, so it feels right to share some thought once again about the events happening here in Cambodia and beyond.

I came back to the words of Neak Krou Savay at our last ECLA performance of Earth and Sky at the National Museum when cultural activities were first restricted because of the pandemic. She told us:

“I have endured moments of suffering and loneliness, but I have never given up the dream of a better world. I have walked out of the steps of the Royal Palace to stand in mud and pain… but I have never lost my passion to carry our arts through these challenging times.”

Like last year in Cambodia, we have not been able to welcome the New Year and other traditions we cherish in the same way because of the new surge in COVID-19 cases. While life in some other parts of the world have begun to resemble something like a new normal with public spaces starting to re-open, Phnom Penh has gone the other way. Once again we are under lockdown with a mandated curfew and shuttered cultural institutions. Yet unlike before, we now have a year’s experience of adapting and nimble thinking to draw from to build resilience and find new pathways for innovation.

Last week I joined a private event of our current Living Arts Fellows presenting their final reflections on their individual projects. I was so inspired by each of them. Whether building bridges with indigenous communities in northern provinces, taking on the responsibilities of being a cultural leader, or facing adversity as a marginalized identity, they all spoke with passion and plans for a better future.

As part of the Living Arts Fellowship, the Fellows usually go abroad to connect with their peers from a neighboring Mekong country. While the pandemic was making this year’s trip to Myanmar difficult, the political violence that began in February made it impossible.

With our sister organization, Mekong Cultural Hub, and our connections to the arts leaders of our Mekong neighbors, the CLA team and I have been deeply impacted by harrowing accounts from Myanmar. Although the situation in Myanmar is different, the similar histories of political violence touch us on a personal level.

Through our networks in Asia and internationally, we are keeping pulse, seeking advice and staying connected with our friends and creative brothers and sisters in Myanmar. We support and recognize their work to contribute to a vital society in Myanmar through the arts.

Drawing on the words of Neak Krou Savay, I want to say that wherever we are, just as much as we can carry the arts through challenging times, the arts are what carry us. What we give to the arts will be returned to us as joy, as resilience and as healing.

Despite our challenges, Cambodian Living Arts is committed to bringing arts and cultural expression to future generations, so that they can bring their vision of a more sustainable future to reality.

Thank you for continuing to invest in the arts, culture and creativity, and wishing you all the best for good health and safety during this time.