Cambodia’s Rich Cultural History Under Attack



Music and dance have been an important part of Cambodian culture for centuries – both in court rituals and daily life. However, events of the 20th century almost erased the memory of this music.

In 1972, as part of the war against the North Vietnamese, the U.S. initiated a two-year bombing campaign to disrupt Vietnamese supply lines along the Mekong River. In the process, 200,000 Cambodian villagers were killed and hundreds of thousands were wounded and dislocated. Soon after the bombing, the Khmer Rouge, led by the notorious Pol Pot, exploited the war-torn countryside and established a regime that brutalized the Cambodian people.

Between 1975 and 1979, 1.7 million Cambodians were killed. And, because the most educated members of society were particularly targeted, many artists, musicians and teachers were among the first to be executed. Hundreds of thousands more were left wounded and homeless, or fled Cambodia as refugees.

The Pol Pot regime was intent on leaving Cambodia without any cultural or artistic heritage – what it called a "clean slate."

After years of suffering, the Cambodian people are still struggling to recover and rebuild their social, economic and cultural foundations. In a country where most families make approximately $30 to $50 per month, education is the best hope for improving their living conditions.

Established in 1930, the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh lost many teachers to the genocide and was closed from 1975-1979. RUFA hopes to build a strong, modern music-education program in traditional Khmer music and Western classical music.

In its effort to re-establish Cambodia's cultural heritage and strengthen its standing in the world, RUFA also plans to form a professional-level National Symphony Orchestra. However, one huge obstacle to this dream is a lack of high-quality instruments, especially Western classical string instruments.

To learn more, visit the United Nations website.

For further information, e-mail Strings for Cambodia Project Coordinator Johannah Segarich, Professor of Music, Middlesex Community College, at segarichj@middlesex.mass.edu

Last Modified: 8/5/12