Arts, education and reconciliation in Cambodia: Sociological perspectives

Peter Manning, Sayana Ser

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter or section


Nearly 40 years after the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea ‘Khmer Rouge’ regime (1975–1979), efforts to redress and reckon with Cambodia’s experiences of genocide and atrocity are ongoing. In three years, eight months and 20 days, some 1.6 million died of hunger or disease or were executed as the Khmer Rouge sought to engineer a classless and ethnically purified society: money and private property were abolished, religion prohibited, and those associated with the ‘bourgeois’ former regime — including civil servants, teachers and artists — were brutally purged (Kiernan 2001). This chapter explores the use of arts within attempts to redress and remember experiences of the regime, with a particular focus on the varying participatory and educational methods employed therein. We focus on post-genocide Cambodia as an instructive and unique case, where a history of state-sponsored commemorative and memorial activity that has made claim over the experience of the Khmer Rouge regime constrains and obliges the forms of artistic practice at work today. In doing so, we adopt a sociological lens that helps us to see the relationships between different forms of political, legal, pedagogical and aesthetic interventions, and to better historicise the changing landscape of Cambodian arts practice that is mobilised in the name of redressing experiences of the Khmer Rouge. We deliberately adopt a broad understanding and definition of participation. We seek to show, first, how arts-led efforts to remember the Khmer Rouge have shifted from homogenising representations of a flattened category of ‘national’ Cambodian victimhood to more complex representations of differentiated victims that accommodate experiences specific to gender and ethnic constituency. Second, while participatory and locally driven arts have been key to the successes visible in this transition, we stress that such projects are shaped by a wider political landscape, as well as a set of relationships and histories that pose important questions for both the experiences of suffering and the forms of 146participation these processes entail. We see, for example, differing levels and forms of participation in arts initiatives: from coercive commemoration demanded by state authorities, to the re-articulation of victims’ stories mediated by influential civil society and external actors, to recent initiatives more faithful to the principles of devolvement and ownership at the heart of participatory approaches. The first section of the chapter reviews state-sponsored arts-based initiatives deployed through the 1980s that sought recourse to coercive forms of ‘participation’ in the name of ‘national reconciliation’. The second section of the chapter proceeds to consider the changing landscape of participatory arts in Cambodia today, especially as they emerge in relationships that converge with, and diverge from, high-profile political and legal transitional justice interventions, including, as we shall discuss, ongoing prosecutions at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationParticipatory Arts in Participatory Development
EditorsPaul Cooke, Inés Souria-Turner
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780429399190
ISBN (Print)9780367024963 , 9780367024970
Publication statusPublished - 13 Aug 2019


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