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Ancient Angkor Temple of Cambodia back to life

North Korean painters revive Angkor Temple.

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  • Paintings of Angkorian Empire by North Korean painters have been exhibited at the Angkor Panorama Museum near Angkor Wat temple
  • North Korea spent $24 million and four years building the nearly 6,000-square-meter museum, which rises to an imposing height of 35 meters.
  • The museum was built in the spirit of cultural promotion, friendship and cooperation rather than income generation.
  • There is some controversy as to why North Korea would be interested in such a project.

The Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia gets a museum for itself due to North Korean investors. North Korea decided to build a museum for the Angkor Wat temple which would have painters from North Korea depicting the trees, plants and huts in a three-dimensional way. It has murals depicting thousands of warriors and artisans at war and work in the Angkorian Empire. Here is a story from VOA:

Welcome to North Korea’s Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a joint venture between the Cambodian government and North Korea’s long-established Mansudae Art Studio,open since December.

The mural, which took 63 painters from North Korea’s most famous school of political artistry two years to complete, is so captivating that some visitors quietly question its authenticity, wondering aloud if it isn’t some sly video projection.

 

“Amazing! I can see everything…just sitting here in one place you can see everything,” said Keo Samoun of Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province.  Viewing the art after a stop at Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, she said the museum helps place the temples in a historical landscape.  “It’s easier to visit the museum than some of the far-flung temples dotting the province,” she added.

“I have never seen anyone paint anything like this,” said Thoam Manun Tho, a Buddhist monk. “Amazing. Absolutely amazing!” he exclaimed, violating museum decorum by loudly invoking one of the viewing platform’s most commonly overhead refrains.

In the Angkor era

Known for doing things on a vast scale, Mansudae was founded in 1959 to extol the revolutionary virtues of North Korea and its ruling family.

“With a labor force of approximately 4,000 people, 1,000 of which [are] artists, and an area of over 120,000 square meters, 80,000 of which are indoor, the Mansudae Art Studio is probably the largest art production center in the world and by far the largest and most important of the country,” the Pyongyang-based studio’s website says.

Angkor Wat temple. Image source Wikimedia commons
Angkor Wat temple. Image source Wikimedia commons

Part of Mansudae’s overseas expansion, a bid to raise foreign capital for the isolated regime of Kim Jong-un, the Angkor Panorama Museum offers a Socialist-Realist glimpse back to a time when Khmer warriors battled with spears, swords and huge fighting elephants. The empire also built stunning temples, now UNESCO World Heritage sites.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W__Ks89Y9U

“[Visitors] feel as if they are right there during the Angkor era,” Yit Chandaroat, museum vice executive director, told VOA Khmer. “They feel as if they are with the people selling vegetables [or] those on the fighting elephants in the painting.”

A visit to the museum should precede tours of the nearby temples, Chandaroat said, as more than 40,000 images of ancient warriors, artisans, farmers and animals help place those structures in a richer historical context.

Ticket sales and nuclear weapons

North Korea spent $24 million and four years building the nearly 6,000-square-meter museum, which rises to an imposing height of 35 meters.

Pyongyang’s decision to invest in Siem Reap was an act of fraternity between old friends, Chandaroat said.  According to the contract, North Korea would completely reclaim its $24 million investment over a 10-year period.

Carvings from Angkor Wat temple. Image source Wikimedia commons
Carvings from Angkor Wat temple. Image source Wikimedia commons

At least, that was the plan. The 10-year recovery period for the initial investment was recently deemed too ambitious, and North Korea is not likely to see its original investment returned until the second 10-year contract, said Chandaroat, who is also a senior official at the Cambodian government entity managing the Angkor Archeological Park.

The museum and its painted panorama are slated to become fully owned by Cambodia under the agreement within 20 years.

Chandaroat denies links between museum ticket sales and funding for North Korean weapons of mass destruction.

Thai Norak Sathya, Secretary of State for Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says the museum was built in the spirit of cultural promotion, friendship and cooperation rather than income generation.

“The North Korean company came to build the museum because of historical relations of the king with the country,” Thai Norak Sathya told VOA. “Let me tell you that the North Korean company completely abides by the technical condition and Khmer style of art. So, it is not the nature of this business to generate income.”

Foreign visitors turn up their noses

For now, one of the profitability issues facing museum officials is that 90 percent of visitors are Cambodian. Foreign tourists, who bring much needed hard currency to Siem Reap’s economy, have been prone to dismiss the museum.

English tourists Sarah and Ashley say they’ve traveled too far just to see a mere painting of the Angkor temples.

“I am quite surprised that they invested so much outside North Korea,” said Sarah, who only gave her first name.

“I want to see the real things. That is what I am here for,” Ashley added. “That is what we are going to do today. I am not interested to go to the museum.”

 

“I am not aware of what’s inside,” Christelle Bimar, a French tourist said, sitting in a wheelchair in the shade of a palm tree in front of Angkor temple. She was unaware of the panorama museum but had already visited the Angkor Wat temple despite of her left leg broken. “But, yes, I think Angkor and Siem Reap deserve to have many more museums,” she added.

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Foreign Journalists Quit as The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia, Fired The Top Editor

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

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Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.
Foreign Journalists Quit in protest at The Phnom Penh Post, VOA

All but a handful of foreign journalists on staff at The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s last remaining independent daily newspaper, resigned on Wednesday. Citing differences over the meaning of “editorial independence,” they quit within days after new owners fired its editor-in-chief who refused to remove a published article from the website linking the new owner of the paper to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The resignations mean only a few foreign journalists in the newsroom when the paper was sold remain with the Post. The English-language newspaper, which had employed Cambodian and foreign journalists since its founding in 1992, was known for a feisty voice often critical of the government and well-connected economic interests.

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.

Sivakumar’s public relations firm lists Hun Sen as a client. Sivakumar has not responded to requests for comment from Voice of America, which has tried to reach him since the sale of the Post was announced Sunday. Sivakumar issued a statement dated May 6 refuting links to Hun Sen, calling the reporting “totally untrue and cannot be concluded based on what took place between the PR firm and the client more than 25 years ago.”

Fears of crackdown

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner.

“I doubt the Post will continue to be the fearlessly independent press it has been for 26 years,” Erin Handley, a former Post reporter told the VOA Khmer Service in an email exchange. “My resignation is a decision I did not take lightly, but on an emotional level it feels like I am betraying my Khmer colleagues, who I am so incredibly proud of.”

The sale of the Post and the subsequent upheaval comes amid concerns over the government’s crackdown on the press and critics in the run up to a general election set for July 29. Hun Sen and his party are expected to win, having dissolved the main opposition party in November.

The Post had come under pressure in recent months following the closure of its rival English-language daily, The Cambodia Daily, which was hit with a hefty tax bill. The Post was also handed a tax bill to the tune of $3.9 million, which was settled ahead of the sale, according to a statement from Clough.

Son Chhay, a former MP with the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the closure of the Daily and the sale of the Post, coupled with the quieting of numerous radio stations that broadcast critical coverage of the Hun Sen regime, had stifled debate ahead of the July general election.

“If The Phnom Penh Post, which we always thought of as a newspaper offering publication without fear or favor, was sold to serve political interests, I think it’s a big regret and it will cause criticism of the media landscape in Cambodia,” he said.

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner
Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, VOA

Press freedom, timing of sale

In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded the crackdown on media freedom in Cambodia, which fell 10 places and is now ranked 142 out of 180 countries.

“From the outside looking in, the most troubling thing is the timing of the tax bill’s settlement and the Post’s subsequent sale. The odds of them not being connected seem incredibly remote,” the paper’s former editor-in-chief, Chad Williams, told Reuters Sunday.

“That’s troubling because it suggests the Cambodian government may have used the threat of a shutdown to essentially coerce the sale,” Williams said.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), rejected the allegations of government influence in the sale.

“It’s a selling and buying. They made a bilateral contact. The government didn’t interfere with this,” he said.

‘My trade is journalism’

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

He refused.

Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.

A lawyer for Sivakumar, identified by the Post on Tuesday as Ly Tayseng, a Cambodian, said the new editor-in-chief, identified as Joshua Purushotman, would vet articles in future editions. According to LinkedIn, Purushotman spent a decade working in PR.

The Post reported Tayseng said that the article on the sale was ordered removed because it “damaged our reputation” and declined to discuss the alleged inaccuracies in detail.

“According to the new owner, he thinks that I have made a huge mistake,” Kimsong said. “They think the article should not have been published.”

“My trade is journalism and I don’t know what else to do,” he told VOA Khmer. “There are two options — one is that if I can’t go back to newspapers, I will just sell fried noodles.”

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.
Phnom Penh Post’s office, VOA

Loss of independence

In a staff meeting, Tayseng and Purushotman said Kimsong’s firing was a money-saving business move as the new owners had hired a new top editor, and only wanted to pay one, according to the Post’s own story.

Chhay Channyda, chief of staff at the Post, said she was concerned by the possible loss of independence under the new management.

“This is what we worry about because on the first day when there is a new boss or new company, they came to ask us to remove an article that we wrote,” she said.

Yon Sineat, a reporter, said she saw the takeover as a “serious threat to press freedom.”

“We are concerned that we will not be able to fully practice our journalism or write to reflect the truth,” she said.

Tipping point

For many of the foreign journalists, the tipping point was when “the article, which outlined our new publisher’s company’s previous business and government connections, was taken down, and despite our protests, it didn’t seem like it would go back up,” Handley, the former Post reporter told the VOA. “That appeared to be a breach of our editorial independence and … (it) became increasingly clear that the editorial staff and the new management had irreconcilable ideas about what editorial independence’ entails.”

Handley told VOA that while “I can’t speak for my Khmer colleagues, only my own impressions, but I think there was despair and hopelessness in the newsroom, and perhaps a sense of resignation or inevitability.”

Handley said the foreign and Cambodian journalists supported each other.

“There are few stories non-Cambodians could report solo — we rely on them and they are key,” she wrote. “So I don’t pretend arrogance — the loss of non-Cambodian staff sends a message, but it is important to bear in mind that non-Cambodian reporters can afford to be a lot more cavalier. However, the resignation of all foreign news staff sends the message that there are consequences for trying to undermine the intelligent, in depth and independent ethos of our masthead.”

In the run-up to the July 29 national elections, Cambodia’s independent press is “in ruins,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Also Read: To Protect Election Integrity, Google Suspends Ireland’s Abortion Referendum Related Advertisement 

The 24-year-old Cambodia Daily published its last edition September 4 with the headline “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.” Days later, Radio Free Asia, which like the Voice of America is based in Washington and operates under the auspices of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, closed its Phnom Penh news bureau because of similar pressure over a tax bill.

Two former RFA reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with espionage in another case in November. They were denied bail recently.

Aun Pheap, a veteran Cambodian journalist, has been granted refugee status by the United Nations’ refugee agency and has fled to the United States, fearing arrest on charges related to reporting before the June 2017 local elections. (VOA)