DANCING THROUGH TERROR: KHMER CLASSICAL DANCE DURING THE KHMER ROUGE REGIME

In a 1993 article published in the Los Angeles Times, Vorn Savay rationalized the savage brutality that she and many people in Cambodia endured from April 1975 to January 1979:

“‘One kills another because of lack of culture in one’s mind.  Culture makes people with good memories and peace in their minds and their relations with each other.  If the Khmer Rouge had known our culture, the cruelty in their minds would have lessened.’”[356]

Presented with this rationale however, journalist Judith Coburn reports that the dancer’s teacher “Chea Samy look[ed] away with embarrassment.”[357]  For in actuality, Pol Pot, the leader of the ultra-radical communists who overtook Cambodia in that nearly four-year period, was in fact closely tied to the higher echelons of Khmer society.  His eldest sister, for example, was one of the king's favorites.[358]

 

Born in the village of Sbauv as Sar Saloth, he left his humble backgrounds through a palace connection.  His cousin, none other than Lok Khun Meak, wife of King Monivong and a most influential dance teacher during the king’s reign and after, brought his brother into the palace as a clerk.  The latter would then bring the six year-old Sar Saloth to live and study in Phnom Penh.  The younger Sar gained a scholarship to study in Paris and it was there where he became radicalized, working for the communist party.[359]  Chea Samy, who had married his brother after the death of King Monivong in 1941, didn’t hear much from Sar Saloth upon his return to Cambodia.  And in 1963 he disappeared without trace into the jungle to launch his revolutionary machinations.

With this in mind, it is not hard to see why the old dance master reacted to her student’s words in such a manner.  For, as “a well-known political figure in Phnom Penh” relayed to Bengali journalist Amitav Ghosh, “Revolutions and coups d’etat always start in the courtyards of the palace . . . It’s the people within who realise that the King is ordinary, while everyone else takes him for a god.”[360]  This is echoed by the fact that amongst Pol Pot’s clique were descendants of Samdach Chavea Chhuon, the palace minister who accompanied King Sisowath on the 1906 tour to France who was also the leading expert of Khmer classical dance in his day.[361]

Twisted as it may be, due to their upbringings amongst the court elite, it is no surprise that Khmer Rouge leaders sought the glory of Angkor and the Khmer Empire that birthed it.  They mistakenly saw the baray, large man-made reservoirs of the Angkor area, as the source of the empire’s agricultural success and military might.  Inspired by Zhou Daguan’s mentions of “three or even four rice harvests a year” during Angkorean times, the Khmer Rouge were unrealistically nostalgic “in [their] efforts to revolutionize [rice] production.”[362]  Fusing their communist ideals with a racist nationalism, Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders attempted to create an egalitarian, agrarian peasant society—what they created was genocide.

 

Upon taking control of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they forced the evacuation of an estimated two million people, a large portion of whom had come to the city only recently to escape American bombings and border conflicts.[363]  Marching for days, the Khmer Rouge relocated them to labor camps where they were considered “new people” in need of re-education.

 

Dancers, in order to survive, hid their identities as all forms of elite culture were to be eradicated.  Like the doctors, teachers, lawyers, and other educated Khmer people of the middle and upper classes, they were targeted for execution to realize the radicals’ imaginings of progress and equality.  The wearing of glasses meant the ability to afford medical care, light skin meant the luxury of not working in the fields, speaking a foreign language meant an education—all were reasonable cause for immediate death in the new regime.

 

Menh Kossany went from being a star dancer of the palace and republic to a hairdresser in a labor camp.[364] Her teacher Chea Samy, not knowing who Pol Pot was despite having once raised him, did not receive any special treatment either.  The former consort of King Monivong told her interrogators that she sold vegetables in the market and when they questioned her lightness of step, she “told them it was because [she] had to walk like on eggshells because of the chicken crap in the market.”[365]  Proeung Chhieng, the star performer of monkey roles under the charge of Queen Kossamak and during the Khmer Republic, drew upon his performative abilities to survive as well.  “[H]is expertise in clowning and mime helped him persuade the interrogators at his labour camp that he was an illiterate lunatic.”[366]

Others had not been so lucky however.  Along the forced march out of Phnom Penh, a dancer who felt like she could not go on made offerings to the spirit of Lok Ta Moni Eisey, the ultimate teacher spirit in Khmer dance, and the spirits of deceased teachers for their aide.  Her prayers were disrupted however and she was dragged away and murdered by a Khmer Rouge cadre.[367]  Lok Khun Meak, despite being Pol Pot’s kin, received no special privileges either.  Like Chea Samy, she did not know who the Khmer Rouge leader was (and the regime did not recognize families anyways, breaking them apart and brainwashing children).  Lok Khun Meak would eventually die of starvation in a labor camp.[368]  Her daughter, caught trying to buy rice with gold, had her breasts chopped off before being killed.[369]  The celebrated neay rong star and teacher Sam Sakhan was executed at Tuol Sleng prison.[370]

Vocalist Em Theay would later describe the pain of losing her children: 

“They separated me from all of my children, even the very young.  When I learned that one of my children had died, I requested the Khmer Rouge authorities to see my child's body.  They denied me this.  The next day I was forced to go to work in the fields as if nothing had happened.  I cried inside, this was so sad and so cruel . . . When the same thing happened after the death of another of my children, I collapsed while working in the rice fields.”[371]

Forced into slave labor along with the rest of the country, with no medicine and what could barely be called rice gruel as food, the dance artists—if not killed themselves—also experienced traumatic violence in their acts as witness.  Chheng Phon explained to a group of journalists in December 1989:

“I am a writer, and yet I cannot find words to describe the Pol Pot regime.  I saw Pol Pot’s men kill eight children in front of their mothers, and then kill the mothers themselves.  Seeing this, I nearly had a heart attack.”[372]

The harsh conditions meant that many artists found themselves on the line between life and death.  Often times, they secretly prayed to the kru (teacher spirits) for their survival as well as those of their family, peers, and teachers.  Chheng Phon, for example, asked of Lok Ta Moni Eisey: “Please Lok Ta . . . Look after my family and me, and all Cambodia’s artists.  We are suffering so much.”[373]  In fact, during this time, “dancers risked their lives, or traded invaluable grains of rice for incense to enact secretive rituals which would connect them to their [kru], and to their pasts.”[374]  One point at the mercy of malaria and starvation, for example, Vorn Savay:

 

“[F]elt that if she could perform a sampeah kru she might survive.  Dancers perform this ceremony in honor of their teachers, their ancestors and the gods asking their spirits to enter them so they can dance.  Savay knew she couldn't tell the Khmer Rouge it was a classical dance ritual, so she said it was a folk remedy, which the cadres were encouraging to stamp out Western medicine.  She lit incense and candles, made offerings of coconut and betel nut, and whispered the chants to herself.  Slowly, she recovered . . . The teacher to whom she secretly dedicated that ceremony was Chea Samy.”[375]

So even in this period of hellish violence, one where Khmer culture was being destroyed “atom by atom,”[376] the spirit of Khmer classical dance remained intact.  Expression of their dance and spirituality—secretly inside their minds and hearts and discreetly in their surrounding physical worlds—was a form of resistance to the inhumane conditions that Khmer artists of the time faced.  Even with such grave limitations surrounding them, Khmer classical dancers preserved their roles as messengers to the ancestor and teacher spirits, and also to the gods.  Soth Sam On once recounted to Toni Shapiro-Phim:

“I set about preparing some offerings, peeking through the slats in the walls of the house to make sure no one was around.  I had hidden some banana leaves, two eggs, and some incense and candles . . . I began tearing and rolling the leaves into cones, and arranging them on a short banana stalk.  I had only enough for a three-level offering [of baysei], though I should have made a seven- or nine-level as befitting the power of the character I dance [the giant].  I placed an egg on each offering, topped with a candle, and, sneaking one last look out into the darkness, I lit the incense.  I prayed that all of us, all of us who used to dance together, would find each other again . . . In the shaft of light from the moon, I started to dance.  Slowly I moved as I sang softly to myself.  I was so afraid that someone would hear or see . . . I danced buong suong (dance of supplication and offering) to let the tevoda and [kru] know I was thinking of them, and to pray for their help in reuniting us.”[377]

In fact, during precious moments alone, “some professional dancers discreetly bent and massaged their fingers and wrists . . . so as not to lose the suppleness it had taken them a lifetime to gain.”[378]  And, in certain cases, like that of Em Theay, dancers found that openly sharing their talents could actually be life-saving:

“Because they knew I was a [dancer], my life was spared, but not my children.  Normally they considered entertainment business-related people to be parasites on society, and many were killed.  Instead they found me useful.  The local warlord liked my singing, so they asked me to sing and dance for them often.  Later on they also used me to sing in a camp for orphaned children.”[379]

Chheng Phon, “the man who was to summon Cambodian dance back from the grave,” snuck into the jungle one night where he danced alone in the darkness.

 

“Conjuring up that night [later in 1993] . . . his right hand [became] the bud of a flower, then a leaf, then a blossom, then a fruit, the exquisite symbols of life and death . . . that ends Cambodian dance performances . . . A child watched Chheng Phon that night and reported his ‘crime’ to the Khmer Rouge, who threatened to kill him for being a reactionary.”[380]

Chheng Phon went on to elaborate to Judith Coburn, “Many artists died then, many because they had no freedom to express themselves . . . To dance is our rice, our nourishment.”[381]  In fact, in the nightmare unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, one where education, healthcare, religion, money, and the arts were formally banned, where ethnic minorities such as Cham, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai were tortured and killed, and Khmer people’s families broken, murdered, and silenced before their very eyes, “a third of Cambodia’s entire population had been lost.”[382]  Succumbing to the slave labor, disease, torture, and execution that everyone faced was an estimated ninety percent of Khmer dancers and their artist and intellectual colleagues.

 

There is an important lesson here of course, for Cambodia today and in its future.  At its root—no matter how horrible their actions were—the Khmer Rouge were attempting to break the harsh realities of authoritarian rule.  This has been the style of kingship and power in Cambodia since the time of Angkor and before; and for countless centuries the overwhelming majority of the population has lived in destitute poverty while a tiny few prosper.  The Khmer Rouge was a reminder that unchecked power, privilege, and inequality does not work—neither as a slow, quiet boiling that came before them nor as the extreme eruption that marked their rule.  Eyes blinded by racism, nationalism, and political ideology, the Khmer Rouge regime went astray and became the authoritarian government they wished to liberate the people from.  “The Khmer Rouge’s vision of returning Cambodia to the glory of the Khmer Empire had only reinvented slavery, feudal repression, mass starvation and disease.”[383]  And the cycle of violence would continue to turn.

 

Chheng Phon would later offer an alternative from within Khmer culture to this reality: “In democracy the people are at the top—they are the most important.  In Buddhism it is the same . . . Buddha is democracy, from the king to the common man.”[384]

 

That said, Pol Pot’s regime was eventually ousted by Vietnamese troops allied with a rival Khmer Rouge faction.  Before this however, Chea Samy had already received a sign of their coming end.  Out in the fields where she was set to work, she heard the familiar singing of birds turn into Pali chanting.  Surprised, she said to herself, “This must mean that religion has come back.  It won’t be long now . . . Religion has come back.  That means the dance will come back, too.”[385]  As the end of the regime drew near in 1978, Chea Samy was washing dishes in a communal kitchen when Khmer Rouge cadres hung an image of Pol Pot.  It was then that she found out that “the butcher”—as her husband had come to call him—the man who had destroyed their lives and that of so many others was none other than her own brother-in-law.[386]  Determined, it was she, Chheng Phon, Soth Sam On, Em Theay and the few surviving others who would revive Khmer classical dance in Cambodia, an art form that was now beginning to spread all over the world with the refugee artists who carried it within their hearts and bodies.

Much like Khmer classical dancers waiting to perform, our costumes of gold, silk, and gold thread catching light on an unlit stage and theater, the art form revealed signs of life and presence even in the oppressive darkness of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Like a line of sacred magicians nearly destroyed but triumphant, the dancers would resurface to share their knowledge and heritage, reclaiming their place and role in the transformation of world society.  A new chapter, new dance would begin in Khmer dance history, for it is the post-Khmer Rouge period where Khmer dance grows and evolves most markedly, inside Cambodia and beyond its borders.

This is not, of course, without the contributions of the priorly mentioned artists, however.  Chea Samy, in her constant twists of fate, would become the most senior dance teacher in the work to counter the destruction wreaked by her brother-in-law.  “‘We will preserve this kind of dance forever,’ she [would later vow], ‘as a document for new generations of Khmer.’”[387]

NEXT

[356] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/4.

[357] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/4.

[358] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 197.

[359] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Pages 21.

[360] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Pages 21.

[361] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Pages 21.

[362] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 86.

[363] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 254.

[364] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh, . Page 10.

[365] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/3.

[366] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Pages 44.

[367] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 134.

[368] http://sites.asiasociety.org/dancecambodia/ghosh03.htm

[369] http://sites.asiasociety.org/dancecambodia/ghosh03.htm

[370] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Pen Sokhuon" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/31337630-3451-0131-0979-3c075448cc4b

[371] Em, Theay. "Cambodian Culture Reborn: My Story | SGI Quarterly." Cambodian Culture Reborn: My Story | SGI Quarterly. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2006Jan-8.html.

[372] "Flowers in the Forest: A Talk with Chheng Phon, Minister of Information and Culture." Cultural Survival. 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/cambodia/flowers-forest-talk-chheng-phon-minister-informati.

[373] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 48.

[374] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 61.

[375] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/6.

[376] "Flowers in the Forest: A Talk with Chheng Phon, Minister of Information and Culture." Cultural Survival. 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/cambodia/flowers-forest-talk-chheng-phon-minister-informati.

[377] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 141.

[378] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 40.

[379] Em, Theay. "Cambodian Culture Reborn: My Story | SGI Quarterly." Cambodian Culture Reborn: My Story | SGI Quarterly. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2006Jan-8.html.

[380] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/4.

[381] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/4.

[382] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  “Flight and Renewal.”  Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso.  Ed. Prumsodun Ok.  CreateSpace Self Publishing, 2013.  Pages 10 - 13.

[383] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/4.

[384] Fontaine, Chris, and Saroeun Bou. "A Reluctant Watchdog." Phnom Penh Post. 19 Dec. 1997. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/reluctant-watchdog.

[385] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 145.

[386] http://sites.asiasociety.org/dancecambodia/ghosh03.htm

[387] Spragens Jr., John. "A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical Dance." Indochina Snapshot -. The News-Journal, 10 Jan. 1989. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.enigmaterial.com/icsnap/asia-3b.html.