A Renaissance from the Ruins

Hello to Tom and to all from Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. I recently said goodbye to the student/teacher/parent group I was leading across Cambodia. I will now spend the next two weeks here in Vietnam working on updating a beneficiary database of those recently injured by bombs and landmines left over from a war that ended here thirty years ago.

While still in Cambodia, we visited with an old friend of mine that I met while attending a boarding school in Maine in the mid 1980s. When we met he had just recently escaped from the Khmer Rouge and had been rescued from a Thai refugee camp by a man who would later adopt him. I was fifteen years old and had no way of knowing that this boy, whose flute playing of Khmer Rouge propaganda songs saved him from a certain death, would impact my life in such a drastic way … and 20 years later would be one of my closest friends.

Arn Chorn-Pond is an emerging Cambodian icon. He has won a closet full of well-deserved humanitarian awards and in the year 2004 was the subject of an award-winning PBS documentary called “The Flute Player”. The film documents his imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge, the murder of his family, how he learned to master the flute to save his life and his eventual escape (by foot to Thailand) from the front lines of a war in which he was a frightened child soldier forced into fighting the Vietnamese.

The latter part of the film shows how Arn has returned to Cambodia to help resurrect the performing arts that the Khmer Rouge nearly destroyed. Artists and intellectuals were high on Pol Pot’s list for destruction in his quest to create the perfect communist society. As Cambodian arts were traditionally passed on from master to student by oral tradition, and not via any written methods, Pol Pot and his murderous followers nearly succeeded in wiping them out forever.

When Arn returned to Cambodia a few years ago, he went in search of any remaining masters that may have worked with his father who was an opera star. He was heartbroken to see those who were not killed had become alcoholics and cigarette vendors on the streets. These were people that once performed for royalty and were famous across Cambodia. He found them forgotten and living out the remaining years of their lives in the gutters of Phnom Penh.

Since then, Arn has formed Cambodia Living Arts. This program has gathered masters of opera, traditional music, and dance to teach young children the arts so they can keep them alive for future generations. This is not done in theater with a stage, or even in a high school. These gatherings of students and teachers of Ancient Khmer (Cambodian) culture take place in a squatter slum community surrounded by garbage piles and dilapidated apartment buildings.

I witnessed four classes amongst the most some of most severe poverty I have ever seen. The contrast was stunning, if not overwhelming: a wealth of culture taking bloom in such extreme squalor.

Sadly, these people that have nearly nothing are threatened with having even less. The government is poised to kick them off the land and this threatens to destroy the budding renaissance of arts arising from the ashes of Pol Pot’s sickening legacy.

There is beauty here amongst the fetid garbage heaps and corrugated steel homes. The one thing Pol Pot could not destroy, the resilient, enduring nature of artistic expression, is thriving somehow and because of that, an ancient culture will live to see another generation.