APPENDIX III. ON KHMER-THAI RELATIONS, AND ON SOURCE MATERIALS
Throughout the process of writing this text, I called upon the discerning eyes of some of my trusted friends and colleagues. All globetrotting artists and scholars, from the fields of visual art, dance, and anthropology, they offered invaluable feedback for the refinement and completion of my writing. To them I am forever thankful.
Of this group, a few begged an important question of me. In a text which acknowledges so many intercultural relations—from India to Tibet, from China to Japan—why is there an antagonism towards Thai arts and contributions? The simple and honest answer is that there is not. My eldest brother Sarun was the son of a Thai mother. I have many Thai friends that are dear to my heart. And I have even taught the dance form to students of Thai heritage, both in the United States and in Thailand. I honestly do not harbor any hatred nor resentment towards Thai people nor Thai artists, and I have done my best to write with a constructive sensitivity around this issue.
That said, the relationship between Cambodia and Thailand is long and complex. Through a history of love and war, we have come to exchange and share religion, culture, language, art, food, and even genetics. It is especially shocking then for those who look at our contemporary relationship with an outside lens, relations that can manifest in both peaceful collaboration and prejudiced violence. Someone once said to me, for example, “I just don’t understand this whole issue between Khmer and Thai people. It’s like little kids fighting over a ball.”
But for the players, if you will, it is hardly a clean-cut narrative construction. It is an emotional and lived history, one that is palpable in our experiences of the present day. Furthermore, there exists between ourselves a quiet understanding of the situation at hand, one that can be understood by the Khmer saying: "Plates in a basket cannot avoid colliding."
In the summer of 2014, for example, I watched as a Thai artist—who was my newfound friend in residence at an art center in Phnom Penh—look down at the ground in embarrassment as she apologized. Before a group of children and adults whom she had come to work with, she apologized for the fact that a significant portion of Thais viewed Khmers as bad people. She was met with a silent awareness by all those present, met with an acknowledgement of the senseless conflict between our two peoples.
This, however, is not always the case. In 2003, at the rumor that a Thai actress claimed Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, an angry group of Khmer people burned the Royal Thai Embassy down and damaged Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh. This was not a one-off flaring of emotions but one reflecting a long history of violent conflict. In refugee camps in Thailand, for a modern example, Khmer parents sometimes dug ditches to hide their children so as to avoid them from being trafficked by Thai soldiers. And at Preah Vihear—where refugees were forcefully repatriated on June 8, 1979, that same temple that Thailand would later claim ownership of in 2008—at Preah Vihear many Khmer people died as they struggled down its cliff, stepping on landmines while being shot at by Thai soldiers. To find a way towards peace from such a situation as in 2003 then, instead of reaching the “facile conclusion that the Khmers are ‘the villains’ . . . and the Thais are ‘the good guys,’” Thai scholar Charnvit Kasetsiri expressed the need to study the “history of Thai-Cambodian relations to understand the deep-seated causes of what took place so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future.”
There have been studies of Khmer nationalist attitudes, the source of fire for the 2003 tragedy of course. But I have largely been dissatisfied in discussions of the subject in relation to Khmer classical dance. Hideo Sasagawa’s narrow lens on Khmer dance and nationalist discourse, for example, is written with the implication that Khmer dance tradition and Khmer modes of resistance are merely modern inventions of French colonial discourse. He does this without ever once acknowledging the long-standing perceptions Khmers developed towards and hold for Thais through centuries of on-going war, one in which the “sacking of [Angkor] can be compared to the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.” So, as Thais often vilify the Burmese as destructive thieves, Khmers often do so to Thais—for hundreds of years now, long before the presence of Europeans in the region.
This lack of context is reflected in the way that Sasagawa critiques Toni Shapiro-Phim’s Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia and colors Chea Samy and Khmer artists with a certain dishonest and manipulative air:
“In her dissertation, Shapiro described how well a teacher had been aware of the Siamese influence upon the court dance . . . but she did not discuss the reason why such an awareness had not been revealed in public . . . Thanks to Shapiro’s works we know what the dancers said about the dance, but then one begins to wonder why they spoke like that.”
The shortcomings of his narrow focus becomes clear, however, when we read the scene he was referring to:
“While in Phnom Penh, I [Toni Shapiro-Phim] translated for Chea Samy during an interview by a Thai journalist. Madame Samy was extremely diplomatic in responding to the journalist’s question about ‘two hundred Thai dancers coming to the Khmer palace to teach dance’ a long time ago. She answered that she had been raised in the palace since she was a mere child, and had never heard her teachers nor anyone else speak of such a thing. After the interview, Chea Samy explained her understanding of the complicated history to me: ‘Norodom had grown up in Thailand. He was a man, and royalty at that, so it was natural for him to have a lot of women. When he came to Cambodia, some of the women came with him. And some became dancers. They didn’t come here as dancers or dance teachers.’”
Contrary to her words, through the 1971 writing of Khmer scholar Ly Theam Teng, we can say that some Thai dancers came as teachers during the reign of King Norodom, as his wives and concubines. Chea Samy’s “understanding of the complicated history” then, although perhaps only partially on point, may be fully sincere. She is not a historian, and entered the palace as a child two decades after King Norodom’s death under a very different political and artistic leadership. Her understandings are a product of historical events reflected in Saramani, which describe what happened to King Norodom’s Thai wives immediately after his passing:
“They invited Khun Than to leave her home near Tinamng Mekhala, keeping it for Princess Vormthida instead. Therefore Khun Than had to gather her many belongings and leave the palace, to build a new house in the south of the city in the Wat Svay Popei neighborhood. There she used her own wealth to build a temple for the sake of the country’s future that was named after herself, known as Wat Than today. Khun Preah Nheat had no wealth like Khun Than therefore her house was not so glorious that anyone would want it either. She offered all her lakhaon children to the new king to win his favor so that she would not be chased out of the palace, and lived in a state of dire poverty with no one paying her any regard until the day of her death.”
Saramani further details what happened shortly after in the early years of King Sisowath’s reign:
“The rules and manners of organization inside the palace were completely thrown out. The palace of today is not like the palace in the beginning [when Saramani began training under the reign of King Norodom] . . . Not even a few years in and the ladies of the court, musicians, dancers, dance teachers, all the way down to the servants were completely new.”
That said, why would Sasagawa—who specializes in the study and construction of historical discourse—ignore Ly Theam Teng’s writing which illuminated the exact nature of Khmer and Thai artistic interactions? How could he claim such sweeping generalizations of Khmer nationalism and Khmer people for that matter, conveniently ignoring Khmer voices that break the theory he has invented? Ly Theam Teng’s article was republished by Reyum in 2001, and Sasagawa cited Julie B. Mehta’s work published in that same year. Significantly, he ignored Khmer words of cultural interaction in Mehta’s very own document, words that counter his polarizing theories:
“Said Khmer civilization scholar Nouth Narang, ‘One of the biggest problems for us is that our dance is not just one influence. The enormous influences from Sri Vijaya (Java), India, and Thailand, since our dance returned from the court of Ayuthaya, have made Khmer dance quite complicated. But mostly in nature and character, the dance is based on the movement of the naga, the snake, because we believe that our grandparents are from the naga king’s stock . . . It is very important to remember this because whether it is the Apsara dance, the dance by the heavenly court dancers, or the dances depicting scenes from the Ramayana, the movements are basically of those same loops and spirals that embody the movement of the naga.”
Let us not mistake Nouth’s words to mean that Khmer dance “returned” in whole from Ayutthaya. This type of thinking is reflected in the writings of James R. Brandon and Jukka O. Miettinen, and is an unrealistic conception of the past that uses outdated scholarship and border delineations—in other words colonial demarcations of power—to measure the social, cultural, and political vitality of a society. Furthermore, they are not historians of Cambodia so their conclusions of Khmer dance history are faulty at best, and reflect more the complications of writing broad, over-generalized, and sweeping histories of “Theatre in Southeast Asia” and “Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance.” This coming from the outside to contain and define a people, a culture, a history, and an art form has colonial precedents and its shortcomings are revealed in an image that Neak Kru Sophiline shared with me when I first began my dance training: “When we try to grab and carry too much, like when you wrap your arms around a big pile of grass, the things in the middle start to fall through and away.”
History, however, is not a line of clean-cut periods and chapters. We must therefore root the development of Khmer dance as we know it today, even with numerous outside influences, to the core and center that Nouth mentions. Any accurate history of Khmer dance must, like a flower opening and revealing itself to the cosmos, come from the inside out. The mandala of robam then, radiates in and from Cambodia, and especially from the hearts and bodies of Khmer classical dancers wherever they may be in the world.
Turning back to Sasagawa now, why would a writer focused on critiques of Khmer nationalism ignore and gloss over the exaggerated and unsupported claim of Thai nationalists? Why would the Thai king share an unrealistically generous number of dancers who represented his power, especially given how King Rama III of Bangkok denied dancers to King Anouvong of Vientiane? Why would a writer not be able to understand and empathize with, or rather, why might he overlook, the frustration of an emotional person confronted with absurd misinterpretations? And how could a writer filter and manipulate the words of Chea Samy—words of independence, words of resistance built upon centuries of conflict—to construct the faulty assertion that Khmers only learned to defend our selves, our land, and our heritage because of the French?
Ironically, for all of his critiques of "post/colonial" discourses on Khmer dance, Sasagawa fails in that he adopts the very language and methodologies of the colonizers. He draws only from written evidence—not a single direct source is cited—which is problematic when trying to study or write about a tradition that is passed on in an oral and embodied fashion. He furthermore dismisses French claims of "similarity" between Khmer dance postures and costumes to Angkor without providing any visual analyses of his own. His writing therefore manifests as the other face of colonialism, which worked to create breaks and ruptures between Khmer people and Angkor and the agency it has represented since its inception. The shortcomings of his approach can be seen in the following words:
"Groslier's book included a few illustrations of dancers wearing the same costumes as the sculptures in the Angkor monuments. It is certain that the stone inscriptions of the Angkorean era mentioned the dancers living in the temples. The sculptures of the monuments, however, depicted a divine world, nor is there any evidence to show the kind of costumes the dancers put on."
This statement exemplifies a clear lack of grounded interaction with, connection to, and understanding of Khmer art, culture, and history, as it fails to account for why King Suryavarmann II and his court—historical people carved onto the walls of Angkor Wat—are seen wearing the same garb as the divinity they worshipped.
Secondly, through surviving pieces of headdresses and jewelry, we know that there is a direct correlation between the manners of dress as depicted on the temple walls and as worn by Khmers of that time. And last, through other pieces of material and linguistic evidence, we know that there was even more available to the dancers and the people than depicted at Angkor too.
It is interesting to see how Sasagawa's attempted separation between a human and divine world—not even the Khmers of Angkor are allowed to be connected to the fruits of their genius—echoes the French distinction between the Khmer and the Cambodgienne, and the Thai distinction between the Khom and the Khamen. His writing mirrors French and Thai imperialist strategies for fracturing and asserting power; and, as a reader of Khmer heritage, as someone who carries the living Angkorean dance tradition in my body, I am especially skeptical of someone who incites nationalist flames by mentioning Thai influences but not Khmer influences, critiques Khmer nationalism but not Thai nationalism, and criticizes the colonizer while adopting their languages, structures, devices, and methodologies to become them.
Moving along then, from my friends came also the request for “proper” sources. Citing the future of Khmer scholarship and the legacy of this writing project, they wanted to make sure that the work was as sound and credible as possible using the methodologies of academic writing. Web pages and videos online, for example, can disappear at any day and sites like Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, both informed and uninformed.
I would like readers to know that I have archived all videos and web pages cited in my text. Furthermore, I discerned suitable information from Wikipedia using my own contextual knowledge. After years of studying the visual and performative arts, in the studio and through books, for example, I looked at Wikipedia’s definition of contrapposto and decided it was fitting to use. Yet there were other pieces of information that I would not have easy access to that I incorporated, pieces of information that are not political in nature. Examples of these include numerous photos of temple iconography, Jane Sherman’s description of exercises she practiced as part of the Denishawn dance company, as well as tantric symbology in relation to color to name a few.
The Serpent’s Tail was conceived as an online project and with that comes the inherent belief that the world wide web can and should be a platform for concrete and credible knowledge. Although many would question my decision to draw upon these sources, my gesture for better or for worse represents an investment in the platform and community itself. Perhaps when these details are thrown into the fire of time some of them may not survive. But I believe that many of them will, and that there is enough grounded, established and original knowledge contained in The Serpent’s Tail that will allow it to triumph over such a test and remain useful for future generations. Furthermore, the nature of the medium allows for me to immediately edit and publish as research develops and new evidence emerges; and I will publicly log all changes that have been made as a responsibility to my readers, the art form, and history itself.
What then, as my friends have asked me, is the legacy that I want to leave with The Serpent's Tail?
Speaking first on the future of Khmer scholarship, I did not write this text with the intention of it becoming an “authority.” Rather, it is part of a much-needed process in which practitioners of Khmer classical dance explore, write, and dialogue about the history and significance of our tradition, both amongst ourselves and with others. This text merely represents the opening of a door, for a new period of Khmer dance and artistic practice. I am confident that future generations of artists, thinkers, and writers will be able to build upon the words and ideas present in this text. And they will refine and sharpen the story of our history towards constantly ever-higher expressions—just as generations of Khmer artists have done to works in our repertoire and to the art form itself.
Furthermore, my aspiration here is not as an academic. Rather it is as a kru, as “one who rids of darkness” as the word means in Sanskrit. In colloquial, everyday Khmer however, the word kru also all at once means a teacher, a healer, and a magic-wielding shaman. And whether I am dancing, speaking, teaching, writing, or creating, my goal is to exemplify this word, and to find, embody, and share the “path of light” of which my art and tradition is an expression.
To find this way, this place, to embody this idea, I am showing the next generation how I have pulled from everything in my environment—art, ethnography, oral histories, ancient stories, linguistics, post-colonial critiques, science, and yes, even humble sources of information such as family stories, Wikipedia, and personal experience. There is a grain of possibility in everything, in every place. And truth and false, fact and fiction, high and low, intent and mistake, inside and outside of the system all offer the possibility for enlightenment. It is important then to note that I am not writing solely for the next generation of Khmer academics. I am writing to nurture the next generation of artists, thinkers, creators, nurturers, philosophers, and leaders. I am writing to push my tradition and community and Cambodia forward. I am writing to elevate the state of human culture and society.
Which then, brings us back to the question of Khmer-Thai relations.
When I first began this endeavor, my teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro advised, “Hold your emotions on all that you find. Show the best of all sides.” I have strived my best to heed my teacher’s guidance, sharing the best examples of Thai dance and costuming that I can find given my limitations in time, distance, and resources. Furthermore, offering the best—for the sake of future artists transcendent of borders, for the sake of humanity—does not mean that we should feign ignorance of the past nor be afraid to address its misunderstandings, injustices, and violence either. In fact, we must tackle those issues head-on like a doctor who precisely diagnoses the nature, scale, intensity, and peculiarity of an illness before wholesomely curing it.
So is Thai dance merely Khmer dance? Is Khmer dance merely Thai dance? Or perhaps to find a middle ground, maybe we can contemplate the words of Mabbett and Chandler in reference to Longvek and Ayutthaya: “The high cultures of the two countries as expressed in palace dances, royal language, court ceremonial, temple paintings, and Buddhist sculpture became all but indistinguishable, and impossible to call either ‘Cambodian’ or ‘Thai’.” This statement is compounded further by Michael Vickery's claim that "the royal house that ruled at Ayutthaya before 1569 was another royal Khmer line, which always considered Angkor as the old capital."
Yet somehow, even this is not enough. Because, even through all of this sharing, we can be confident that dance in Longvek and Phnom Penh were never exactly the same as that in Ayutthaya or Bangkok. Even if performing the same dances and dramas, these things came to life in the bodies of different performers, under the direction of different artists, in different physical spaces, and under different political situations.
Which brings us to a crucial question. Peace, understanding, connection, and respect are important, but are they achieved in a we-are-the-world, ignore-the-details, lump-everything-together, meet-you-half-way-half-spiritedly manner? Is Moni Mekhala, or any person who has inherited a precious gift and heritage from their teachers and ancestors, supposed to give away her crystal at the mere demands of an outside force? Is she to reduce her brilliant radiance in order to exist in the world with others? Something tells me not. And perhaps I can draw upon old lore once more, this time from the Reamker, to illuminate the nature of this situation.
Having gone into exile, Seda gave birth to Preah Ream’s child. She named this child Reamleak, whom she left in the care of an ascetic who had taken her in. One day, while washing her clothes, Seda saw a female monkey tenderly caring for its child. Her own motherly instincts kicked in, and she rushed back to retrieve her own. She took the infant without disturbing the old man, who was in deep meditation. When the ascetic came to his senses, he panicked at the sight of the missing child. So as not to cause Seda any more pain, he duplicated the child and was surprised when Seda returned with Reamleak. He offered to destroy his new creation but Seda chose to keep the twin infant and named him Chupleak.
Like these identical twins, many—including uninformed Khmer and Thai audiences—will mistake the superficial aspects of Khmer and Thai dance for one another. However, despite the similarities of the surface, ultimately like the twins, the traditions are animated by distinct personalities, characters, mindsets, and spirits. This results in different styles of movement, costuming, and music, reflecting two individual styles that stand and function independently in response to the outside world. Furthermore, within these individual styles, are a multiplicity of approaches and visions to the art forms as well.
So yes, through iconographic, historical, and linguistic evidence, having nothing to do with opinions of superiority or authenticity, we can establish that the Khmer dance tradition is the elder twin from which Thai dance was modeled and replicated. And yes, we can say that later in history the elder twin shared knowledge with the younger twin and the younger twin with the elder—both in moments of love and conflict. Yet, no matter how aligned, in tune, in dialogue, collaborative, and intimate the twins are, even if they wear the same clothes or say the same things, it would be inaccurate to say that Chupleak is Reamleak or Reamleak is Chupleak, that Thai dance is Khmer dance or Khmer dance is Thai dance. Their connection and interplay, in a way, is dependent on and reflective of their individuality and distinctiveness.
The flip side of this is that when you strip both of them to the bare anatomy—regardless of what they wear, regardless of what language they speak—Chupleak will always be in the image of Reamleak. So long as Thai dance uses the curvilinear aesthetic that defines Khmer dance, the fluidity of movement derived from the naga, it will be in the image of its Khmer predecessor and neighbor.
Perhaps then we can best understand this sharing—understand the nature of tradition and the passage of knowledge from one person, generation, and place to the next—through the words of the Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna:
"What arises in dependence on another
Is not at all that thing itself—
But neither is it something else:
There is no break, there is no permanence."
Khmers and Thais, we have a long relationship. And in any healthy and successful relationship, we must know where one another stands. The way I have weaved The Serpent’s Tail together reflects none other than my own understandings of and approaches to the tradition—different from my teachers, from my dancing peers, and from my colleagues who provided invaluable feedback for this writing. It was written with my utmost sensitivity and care to promote peace and prosperous growth. And I will express here that I do not support hatred nor violence of any kind.
But, if you will, let us contemplate the decorative motifs of Angkor Wat once more and conjure again its images of conflict manifested in the bas-reliefs of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, the Battle of Langka, the Battle of Kurukshetra, and the birds spiraling and colliding into one another to name a few. Let us also contemplate the dance drama Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, which is the performative expression of that temple’s conceptual theme, a performative expression of the generative balance between competing forces. What is the rain that falls after our battle? And how do we find and embody the apsara, those celestial dancers born of chaos and violence whom Chheng Phon describes as “the symbol of the surety of a life free from anxiety . . . [beings] trying to find this surety for others?”
I trust enough in both Khmers and Thais to dialogue honestly, critically, and peacefully to rise above our conflicts. And I share these words of Neak Kru Sophiline regarding our relations: “I hope that your generation will have a better experience.” Furthermore, I invite us all to put away radical nationalism to contemplate these words of Kwame Anthony Appiah: “‘Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.’”
Cambodia has seen so much war and violence, and it is the last thing that our people need. We cannot afford physical, psychological, social, or emotional violence if the country is to grow and prosper, because there are very real spiritual and human consequences for generations to come. There are very real economic consequences for Khmers, and for Thais as well, as our countries both depend greatly on revenues generated from tourism. Recently, for example, an international boycott was called on travel to the Dominican Republic after the government retroactively stripped citizenship from residents of Haitian descent. So no one wins with hatred, really.
The Serpent’s Tail then, is my offering. It is one of my steps in building a bridge. And even before its publication, it was already stirring dialogue and inspiring understanding. After presenting my research on Khmer dance after the fall of Angkor, in regards to Ayutthaya and post-Angkor Cambodia, a dancer in the audience approached me. She said, “So that’s why my teacher told me that Khmers and Thais, we are bong paoun.” Bong paoun literally means “elders and juniors,” but connotatively, it means “brothers and sisters” or “family.” And, in this relationship of similarities and differences, I want to encourage the honoring and celebration of the singularity of our dance forms. We can be connected but stand independent. We can share and still be special. The stage of the universe is big enough for all of us.
 Name has been omitted for sensitivity issues. August 2014.
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 Name has been omitted for reasons of sensitivity. August 2014.