Sharing the Story of the Cambodian Living Arts

Transforming Cambodia Through Arts




Fifty years ago, Cambodia was home to some of the most diverse abundant arts and culture in Southeast Asia. Music, dance and performance flowed strongly through Cambodian people’s blood. There were singers on every corner, musicians in every village and a dancer in every child. Art flourished. But in 1975, the Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly everything and everyone. Between 1975 and 1979, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation and over work. Among the dead were 90% percent of Cambodia’s artists, who were specifically targeted for execution, a devastating blow to all of Cambodia’s oral traditions. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, this human and cultural tragedy was compounded by two subsequent decades of economic hardship. Few of the surviving master artists could make a living by performing or teaching.

Arn Chorn-Pond, a child during the genocide, survived by playing the flute for his captors. He escaped to a Thai refugee camp in 1979 and was one of eight boys adopted by Reverend Peter Pond and brought to live in the United States. Arn, like many other Cambodian American refugees struggled with the past. One day in a large cathedral full of people Arn told is story. He cried. They cried. He played the flute for them. And for the first time since being a child soldier, he began to heal. Arn’s story led him around the United States and the world for over a decade. Church after church, school after school, he opened up to anyone who listened. After time, he knew what wanted, what he needed to do.



Arn had discovered a network of aging “living treasures” surviving in poverty in cities and villages across Cambodia. What had begun as a personal quest for his own family, who had owed an opera company, and for his flute teacher, who had risked death by secretly teaching Arn traditional Cambodian songs during the Khmer Rouge, turned into a lifelong mission to generate artistic and cultural renewal in his country.

In 1998, backed by a small group of dedicated people in the United States, Arn set up the Cambodian Masters Performers Program, which has since evolved into Cambodian Living Arts. Initially, the program supported four master artists whom Arn had ‘discovered’ to acquire instruments, rent teaching spaces, and earn a small salary. Starting small, we celebrated accomplishments such as hiring a fifth teacher, flautist Yim Saing, 77, who resumed making flutes after 10 years. Every success slowing piecing together cultural fabric of Cambodia’s performing arts.

Cambodian Living Arts has had numerous important partners along the way, including our fiscal sponsor from 1999 – 2009, World Education, which was critical to support and nurturer. During this time the Cambodian Masters Performing Program grew from a vision shared by a few people into the thriving robust organization that Cambodian Living Arts is today. We expanded from a small group of students and four master artists to over 16 master artists and 11 assistant teachers who have touched the lives of over 1,000 students. Our efforts to bring the arts and culture of Cambodia back from the brink of extinction are paying off, not only because of our own efforts, but because we have been joined by many other groups and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to preserve the culture and artistic heritage of Cambodia. In 2010 Cambodian Living Arts was awarded a Global Vision Award for Cultural Restoration from Travel + Leisure magazine.


Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) joined forces with the Marion Institute in 2009. After the past decade of work, CLA is operating in a Cambodia very different from that of the 1990s, and with a renewed vision as ambitious as Arn’s was when he first set out to discover the surviving Master Artists from his childhood. Today, we still support all of the master artists who have worked with us over the years. They are not only teaching the next generation, but are now guiding their students to become the next generation of teachers through our Community Arts Outreach program. More importantly we are working to address the most pressing needs of the arts community in Cambodia today, by building partnerships, sharing expertise and resources, increasing the capacity of artists and advocating for the artists with cultural policy makers and major institutions. We envision a dynamic cultural sector with the arts becoming the national and international signature of Cambodia. Learn more about all the work we are doing today.




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