Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Blogging absence

Sorry for my absence over the last few days. Lots of things going on in my life at the moment though to be frank, there's not been much to tell you in recent days. I see that tourist arrivals in Cambodia are up 20% on last year with 975,349 visitors, of which 598,929 visited Siem Reap, up 52% on the same period in 2006. I may be conspicuous by my absence for another week or so as I get things sorted and then normal service will be resumed.

However, I did find the following article which caught my eye:
Curtain call for an icon of Cambodia's artistic recuperation
Phnom Penh's Bassac Theatre has been drummer Nop Sambona's home since the Khmer Rouge were pushed from power 28 years ago, leaving behind a ruined country, its singers, dancers and musicians among the 1.7 million people murdered by the regime.

Those who survived the apocalypse unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, which was particularly brutal in pursuing of Cambodia's artists, trickled back into the city and began trying to rebuild their lives. The theatre became the soul of this battered community, a bright spot in an otherwise dead world that evoked a cultural richness which would never be fully revived. Nearly three decades on that bright spot is dimming as the site on which Cambodia's national theatre sits has been leased to a private developer and the building doomed to be razed. Its artists, who have soldiered on against darkness, wet and neglect since a fire gutted the auditorium and stage area in 1994, were offered 300 dollars each and told last month to leave. "This place has produced hundreds of artists. The theatre produced the nation's great culture," says Nop Sambona, taking a break from what will be one of the last rehearsals to resonate through the Bassac's now derelict performance hall. "Its a landmark. We're so sorry that we've lost it," he says, gesturing over his shoulder at the Bassac's flame-blackened foyer.

Constructed in 1966, the 1,200-seat Bassac was designed by Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's most famous modern architect, as a monument to Cambodia's thriving performing arts scene. It is not hard to imagine the capital's elite, dressed in elegant evening wear, gliding through the Bassac's imposing triangular foyer and up the cantilevered staircases suspended over shallow pools of water, about to view a performance of the Royal Ballet. The Bassac was one of dozens of gems built by Vann Molyvann, whose wide boulevards and stunning public buildings transformed Phnom Penh from a tiny backwater into a graceful capital during Cambodia's short period of prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s.The era, known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Cambodia's "golden age," also spurred on a strong revival in performing arts, with the Bassac at its heart. "During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the government considered the theatre a part of our national heritage," an angry Vann Molyvann says. "Heritage cannot be sold, changed or denied -- now they are destroying it. Now they've sold our national heritage to a famed businessman."

Khim Sarith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, says the site had been leased to Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng, who plans to develop a "cultural building". In an earlier deal struck in 2005, Cambodia's culture ministry ceded land around the Bassac on the condition that the theatre be renovated, retaining its original name and architecture. Kith Meng was to get an undisclosed amount of property around the theatre in exchange for building a conference centre and office blocks. But Khim Sarith explains that the government is unable to afford the "millions of dollars" it would cost to restore the Bassac. "The theatre will be knocked down because it is burned and is old," he says. "There is nothing there," he says, adding the new theatre that Kith Meng has agreed to build elsewhere in exchange for the property "will be better than the old one". Buth Choeun, chief of administration at the culture ministry's performing art department, says the theatre's state of decay has made it increasingly dangerous to work in. "If we stay here it will be difficult for us - we fear the old walls will fall on us," he says.Vann Molyvann is not satisfied by the deal. "They do not care about heritage," he says. "I am very worried. I have no hope that Cambodian artists can spread our culture anymore -- Cambodian culture will die." The land prices at that site have reached more than 1,000 dollars per square metre (yard). So it's no longer about national heritage." Ieng Sithul, director of the Khmer Actress Association, says the proposed site for the new theatre is "not suitable," suggesting instead that the Bassac be restored. "If the old site has a beautiful theatre, it will help add value to our culture," he says. But like all of those facing eviction, he is heartbroken about the end of the Bassac."We have nothing but regret. We have only sympathy for the theatre and can only say goodbye to our poor home." In the background Nop Sambona has begun rehearsing again, his drumming heard from behind a glass window on which someone in a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable has scrawled" "Please help to preserve, don't destroy."

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