Marion Institute helps Cambodia heal with art

Apr 25, 2012

The massacre of over one million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 left the country and its people devastated.

Over 30 years later, they are still struggling to heal. Cambodian Living Arts, in conjunction with the Marion Institute, is helping them do that through the country’s rich cultural heritage.

“Cambodian Living Arts is trying to heal a nation by retelling the narrative,” said Marion Institute executive director Desa Van Laarhoven, who spent three weeks with the group earlier this year.

The Institute first began working with the organization in 2009 when they took it on as a program to oversee their development, and bring them to a point of self-sustainability.

“What we’re trying to do is empower the amazing people who want to heal," Van Laarhoven said. "They’ve lived the tragedy now they want to move forward.”

Cambodian Living Arts founder Arn Chorn-Pond watched his family die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge before he was forced to be a child soldier.

“He is such a remarkable person,” said Van Laarhoven. “He says, ‘I’m beyond repair but my country isn’t.’ Everybody has a story like that there. That was the most moving part to me.”

Chorn-Pond searched Cambodia to find the few artists who survived the massacre.

“The Khmer Rouge targeted the artists, the creative thinkers, the intellects - basically wiping out 90 percent of them. Much of the music died,” said Van Laarhoven.

With the help of the music and dance masters, Chorn-Pond and his team began to reach out to the community.

“They’re doing their damndest to spread their knowledge before they pass on,” she said.

Van Laarhoven said despite their scars, “Cambodians have such moments of happiness. What brings them happiness is music, dance, the next generation - seeing the innocence of the little ones.”

During her trip, Van Laarhoven toured the capital, Phnom Phen, as well as other sites.

At one performance in a heavily populated slum, Van Laarhoven said, “They were playing instruments and everyone stopped and listened. It’s bringing together a country to celebrate, instead of to cry.”

Cambodian Living Arts is taking that celebration to New York City with the “Season of Cambodia” in Spring 2013, collaborating with organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music to promote Cambodia and its heritage.

Van Laarhoven hopes the organization’s work will help the world understand the resilience of the Cambodian people and join in their switch to “recovery.”

She acknowledged that the country’s progress towards healing is slow, but said it follows the same philosophy as crossing the chaotic streets of Phnom Pehn.

“Move forward, stop and never go backward,” she said.