Interview with Khamliène Nhouyvanisvong, UNESCO's new Special Representative to Cambodia

He plans to develop learning centres, nominate new World Heritage sites, preservation of monuments, and protection of Angkor


UNESCO's new Special Representative to Cambodia, sixty year-old Khamliène Nhouyvanisvong, has ushered in a new era in the organisation's relationship with the royal Cambodian government.

"We are here to listen to what the government needs us to do and to translate their wishes into actions," he says, "We can give them information and directives. We have no opinion".

Disagreements with the government precipitated the departure of former representative, Richard Engelhardt, and Nhouyvanisvong arrived from UNESCO's Paris headquarters last spring to replace him. His initial task was to heal the breach and to expand UNESCO's programmes. "It was a diplomatic move", explains Nhouyvanisvong, who has worked with UNESCO since 1961. "We needed a new momentum".

Nhouyvanisvong's role is enhanced by his being Laotian, a country historically co-operative with Cambodia. Minister of State Vann Molyvann, with whom the earlier misunderstandings had occurred, lived in Laos. "He loves my country. He was attached to the Ministry of Public Works and if he had not come back here, he would have retired to Laos".

Nhouyvanisvong, who has an MA in Education from Stanford, plans to develop UNESCO's learning centres. Illiteracy is the most important issue: "64% of the population is illiterate, and of that, 70% is female", he claims. He hopes to reform the higher education system, teach science and maths at secondary level, and create distance learning programmes in rural villages. UNESCO has three learning centres at Battambang and Siem Reap respectively, where handicrafts such as silkweaving, dance and teacher training are promoted. There is a multi-purpose centre at Udong.

They are building a floating school on two boats on the Tonle Sap lake, one for handicrafts and one a mobile library, costing $17,000 each. "We teach communities to take care of themselves. When our work is done, we will leave".

Another priority is the nomination of the Tonle Sap as a World Heritage Site. "The Tonle Sap is the life of these people. We estimate that ten species of fish have disappeared during the past fifteen years. We must help the government to protect it whether it is listed or not". Because of the ecosystem, the management plan is linked with Angkor, which became a World Heritage Site last year.

At Angkor, the government has added 10,000 to the 40,000 hectares, expanding it to about 200 square miles. Last October, the first Tokyo inter-governmental conference on Angkor set up an International Co-ordinating Committee, co-chaired by France and Japan. Its first meeting was held in March. All contributions will be channelled through it and decisions submitted for the government's approval.

At national level, Nhouyvanisvong is planning an authority, called Apsara, for the preservation of the monuments. "It will take decisions on all activities. Angkor is not only a place to preserve and protect, but a place of worship. It is also a tourist place to regenerate economy".

The government wants Siem Reap to become an art city, removing the airport from its proximity to the ruins. There will be an Angkor Park Management System to cope with a million visitors a year. "We want to prevent tourists from climbing on fragile monuments", he says. Parking will be outside the site, with other facilities. A circuit around Angkor Thorn will be negotiated via non-polluting transport, such as a mini-train. "We have to be pragmatic", he declares, "it has to be income-generating".

He hopes to launch an international campaign soon to save Angkor. $10 million has been pledged to UNESCO by Japan, of which $3 million was available last year, with Angkor a priority. "But we need $15 million a year", he admits. First an inventory must be made. It is vital to counteract theft, which is being tackled by gendarmerie from France. "I don't want to do the job of the government", demurs Nhouyvanisvong diplomatically. The French are training police on site, and UNESCO participates in the prevention of theft and traffic of cultural property, according to The Hague Convention of 1954. "Co-operating with Interpol is our biggest problem. There are stolen pieces in the National Museum in Thailand, including the head of Uma, wife of Shiva. But they were not recorded in an inventory. The museum will return them if we can prove ownership".

Protection for hundreds of other sites, such as Angkor Borei in Takeo, Prei Nokor in Kompong Cham and Banteay Chhmar in the north, is on the agenda, in co-ordination with Minister of Culture and Arts, Nouth Narang.

This year, which the UN is declaring Year of Tolerance, he will organise workshops and training on tolerance and non-violence. The theme reflects the organisation's restoration of harmony and mutual aims with the royal government. "Cambodia needs us", he concludes, "We have to help the country protect its heritage and develop programmes".

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Angkor and the ecosystem'