Chaktomukh Hall, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Emilie Evans, 2016
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One Day With the New Generation Seminar

Chaktomukh Hall, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Emilie Evans, 2016

In September, Ginevra Boatto met up with participants on the New Generation Seminar, an annual program of the East-West Center. The theme of this year’s program was Cultural Heritage and Identity in a Globalizing, Urbanizing World. Boatto spoke with the group about the World Monuments Watch and joined the group on a tour of New Khmer architecture in Phnom Penh. The tour included the National Sports Complex, a 2016 Watch site, and other buildings by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.

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Meeting the NGS participants

Recently, I had the opportunity to join one day of the 26th New Generation Seminar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The New Generation Seminar (NGS)  is an annual study, dialogue, and travel program that brings young and rising leaders from around the Asia Pacific region and the United States together. The NGS is organized and run by the Honolulu-based East West Center. This year, the seminar centered on the theme of Cultural Heritage and Identity in a Globalizing, Urbanizing World. The program’s 17 brilliant participants, from Asia, the USA, and Australia, all under 40 years of age, are directly involved with this theme through their jobs, whether in a local authority, in the government, in universities, or in civil society organizations. This year’s NGS took place first in Honolulu, Hawaii, then Phnom Penh, and Yangon, Myanmar.

The day started with my presentation about the World Monuments Watch, WMF’s flagship advocacy program through which we raise awareness about endangered heritage sites around the world. I presented some significant success stories of this initiative. I was surprised to receive so many questions, but was especially pleased to receive so much enthusiasm, particularly among the group’s Asian participants, who saw in the Watch a chance for a positive change in their countries. In fact, some of the participants pulled out pictures of endangered sites in their countries as soon as there was a chance to do so. Together, we discussed practical ways to attract public attention, increase awareness, and enhance public concern about those sites.

This experience was especially moving for me. After almost five years of working for WMF in Angkor, where I know well about the impact we’re having on the lives of the people we employ, I could see again how WMF’s work can bring hope and resources for a positive change.

After my presentation, Pan Sereypagna, project coordinator for the Vann Molyvann Project, made a presentation about New Khmer architecture, or the architecture that was commissioned and constructed in Cambodia in the years between national independence in 1953 and 1970, the year of the coup d’etat of General Lon Nol, which started a civil war. Pan Sereypagna also presented on the activities that the Vann Molyvann Project is carrying out to document New Khmer architecture as an important part of Cambodian and world history.

Site visits in Phnom Penh

We then visited a few of the buildings erected during the “golden years” of Cambodia (1953-1970). These included the Old Senate (Chamkar Mon compound), the center of power during that time; the National Sports Complex, a 2016 Watch site, the last standing urban park in Phnom Penh, and a true national icon; and Chaktomukh Conference Hall, a fan-shaped structure that was originally funded by the United States Embassy. We also visited the White Building. Originally built as part of a modernist social housing complex, the White Building today suffers from deterioration and faces the threat of demolition. Inhabited by a lively community, it is the seat of active local organizations.

Another inspiring moment happened at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Although it was not my first time there, this place continues to have an emotional impact on me. My colleagues and friends studied there and were the first architects and archaeologists of Cambodia after the civil war. As such, they became a key generation to rebuild this country and they now play leading roles in heritage preservation.

Connecting with future leaders

At the University, we met with a few Cambodian architecture students to discuss their points of view on the theme of heritage preservation and urbanization in Phnom Penh. They admitted that a big challenge is that a lot of people have moved to the city from the countryside and have little to no education; often, they fail to see the value of maintenance and conservation. For many, it’s easier to destroy and build something new. The individuals we met with stressed their roles as architects and intellectuals in guiding the people to understand the values of heritage preservation. They also stressed the importance of setting positive examples, but admitted that a change in mentality needs to occur likewise.

When one of the NGS participants asked whether they would consider moving abroad, all of the Cambodian students (minus one!) said yes, which initially sounded like a contradiction. But they immediately explained they want to have access to better education, gain the experience that would be available living abroad, and maybe the chance to earn some money too. But, they would want to come back; on this, they were extremely determined. Many lamented the lack of virtuous examples to look at if not for international experience. How do you expect us to have ideas on how to solve our problems if we don’t observe our society from the outside? they asked. With the experience and training abroad, it seems, they would gain more respect and have access to higher positions, with more chances to intervene and influence policies. I was really struck by this profound sense of responsibility and commitment to the future of their country.

In the evening, with the NGS participants, I joined a reception at the National Museum, hosted by the United States Embassy. I was sad to say goodbye to these new colleagues, who departed Phnom Penh and headed to Yangon, but I look forward to working with them in Asia soon.