A Change of Guard

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Friday, 30 January 2009

'Children of the Khmer': Fêted in Scotland … bulldozed back home

Published Date: 30 January 2009
By Tim Cornwell
Arts Correspondent

SIX months ago they were being fêted in Edinburgh, cheered by crowds in the Festival parade and winning four-star reviews for their show of traditional monkey and peacock dances.
But the Cambodian teenagers, who performed as the "Children of the Khmer" in Scotland last August, are among hundreds of people who have lost their homes in a slum clearance in the centre of Phnom Penh, The Scotsman has learned.

Poor residents

of Dey Krahorm had been fighting eviction for three years until police and bulldozers moved in this week.

Many of the dancers affected are orphans or from poor single-parent homes. Thoem Bunleng, at 21 one of the oldest performers, who played a monkey drummer in Edinburgh, watched while his home was razed.

"His father just died, and he couldn't afford to pay for the funeral, and he is basically homeless," said Richard Chappell, who helped bring the Cambodian group to The World venue in Edinburgh. "He is staying in one of the classrooms we have in Phnom Penh."

Witnesses described demolition workers rocking stilted houses till they fell apart as inhabitants tried desperately to remove belongings.

Amnesty International this week called on the Cambodian authorities to stop the demolitions and ensure adequate compensation and restitution for those evicted. Opposition MPs also condemned the "grave violences" of the municipal authorities in the Cambodian capital.

Amnesty said more than 150 poor urban families had lost their homes when a force of about 250 police, firemen and workers moved in at 3am, dispersing protesters with tear gas.

"The most urgent task now is for the government to immediately address the humanitarian needs of these people, who have lost their homes and face imminent food and water shortages," said Amnesty's Cambodian researcher, Brittis Edman.

The Cambodian families claim they have legal rights to the land their shanty homes are built on, but that local authorities signed it over to a developer as property values have skyrocketed. The development company, 7NG, claims to have offered up to $20,000 (£13,986) compensation.

But many of those evicted have said they do not know how to apply for payment – which will be far harder to do now they've been forced out.

The company offered alternative accommodation, but it is said to be several miles outside the city with no facilities and no running water. One girl dancer, Chandaloy, who lived in little more than a cupboard, lost her home yesterday.

"They have full legal right to their houses, they are not squatters. All the simple ground-level houses have been cleared. Stage two is the apartment buildings," said Mr Chappell.

The Children of the Khmer show featured 26 young Cambodians trained by Cambodian Living Arts. CLA is a non-governmental organisation which supports traditional Cambodian artforms, widely banned under the Khmer Rouge.

More than 100 CLA students and at least five teachers live in Dey Krahorm.

John Simpson, of the World venue, which brought the Cambodians together, said: "The real interest for us is to follow through on the projects with the Cambodians. We are going to bring them in 2010 and this will certainly not stop us.

"I am sure the people of Edinburgh will be as welcoming and supportive as they were last time. It means a lot for the kids to know the people they met in Edinburgh are supporting them during such difficult times."

Anyone wishing to help can send an e-mail to info@theworldfestival.com.


UNDER the Khmer Rogue regime of Pol Pot, at least 1.7 million Cambodians, some say more than two million, died of starvation, disease and executions during the dictator's primitive experiment in human engineering, called "Year Zero".

The idea behind Year Zero was that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded, replaced by a new revolutionary culture.

Consequently, about 90 per cent of the country's performing artists died during the Khmer Rouge regime, a devastating blow to all of Cambodia's ancient traditions.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the cultural tragedy was compounded by two decades of economic hardship, when very few of the surviving performers could make a living for themselves.

Cambodian Living Arts stepped in to support those performers who, despite their deep knowledge and skill, had either retired or reduced their teaching and performing loads. Now, it funds 16 classes throughout Phnom Penh and seven other provinces to promote the tradition.

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