Cambodian promising artists find new hope

UNESCO fostering Cambodia’s performing arts school through the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD)

Sunrise over the rice fields. The terraces penciled in green lines, murky waters with red light reflections on the surface. The early morning blows a refreshing breeze before the sticky heat kicks in. The Sangkae River lazily drifts into the city of Battambang in Western Cambodia. The golden domes of the pagodas gleam unrivalled. As the bustling traffic fills the silence with increasing uproar, the day starts at Phare Ponleu Selpak’s lush green campus. This NGO has a powerful mission: to improve the lives of children, youth and their families through arts and culture.

As its Khmer name means “The Brightness of Arts”, Phare Ponleu Selpak provides a guiding light to many. Contributing to the professionalization of over 360 cultural actors, the organization has significantly amplified its impact thanks to the capacity-building program financially supported by UNESCO through the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD). Mr Louert To, program director at the organization, has witnessed a radical transformation of Cambodia’s arts industry spearheaded by Phare Ponleu Selpak since its inception 25 years ago. He is clear about the cathartic role of art: “To me, arts and culture represent life and action. Without it, we do not know our history or identity as human beings.”

Phare Ponleu Selpak has become a thriving community for Cambodia’s arts performers. Many inspiring stories result from this positive development. Plenty of artists rose from their difficulties after years of suffering from drug abuse, human trafficking and other tragedies. Through art, they have found an empowering profession for self-realization that has helped them overcome the darkness of their past. Louert To, who attended the 2019 UNESCO Conference in Paris to share his story with the global audience, details how the impact of his NGO resonates beyond the organization and reverberates across many different professionals: “Sound and light technicians report increased payment after our technical trainings. Recently, graduates from our Visual and Applied Arts School founded a startup animation company.” Even more, “some graduates implement social impact projects as independent artists.”

Louert To, in his interview for UNESCO

As pedagogical coordinator of the Performing Arts School at Phare Ponleu Selpak, Ms Hieng Huot has witnessed firsthand many of those inspiring stories. She explains how IFCD-funded project “was not only giving the beneficiaries the hard skills but also the soft skills which they can use within their whole life period. It also helped make them core citizen for the brighter future of the communities.”

Hieng Huot, Pedagogical Coordinator of the Performing Arts School (Source: Phare Ponleu Selpak’s website)

Mr Chanreaksemy Khuon, a colleague of Hieng, also expresses his optimism about how Phare Ponleu Selpak and its promising talents are riding the wave of change in Cambodia’s performing arts sector. He finds no better way to provide income for his wife, his daughter and his two sons than through art direction at the organization. That is how he can fully realize his two passions: “the first one is to develop my skills, and the other is to convey all my skills to others’ development”.

Khuon Chanreaksemy, Deputy Director of the Performing Arts School (Source: Phare Ponleu Selpak’s website)

Hieng is also enthusiastic about the project’s impact upon herself. Keen as she is “for learning new things to develop myself; getting to know more people for the purpose of experience exchange”, Hieng is clear about how the project was “the very best opportunity to bring me towards my passion”. And her commitment resulted in her promotion to pedagogical coordinator of the Performing Arts School. It was the capacity-building brokered by UNESCO’s IFCD that gave her the skills to succeed in her new role.

Likewise, for Khuon “the project was a bridge and means to contributing to the achievement of my goal”. He was also promoted to deputy director of the Performing Arts School, “due to the skills learned from the project in school management”, he asserts with confidence. Furthermore, he is even conducting training to transfer those skills to other professionals: “I am becoming one of the recognized trainers for MoneyMinded workshops by to lead the workshops for other beneficiaries”.

And such expertise is passed on to other staff at the organization, as Hieng explains: “(…) especially the skills of playwright and directing provided me with full insight in developing and creating plays as well as assisting to those teachers who had no chance to attend the workshop like me.” Thus, powerful bonds were forged by beneficiaries of IFCD’s capacity-building efforts. Hieng enthusiastically details how “there was a really good relation and communication with other members of the project”, inasmuch as it involved many different staff members of Phare Ponleu Selpak who knew “about each other’s role and position”, such as “communicating officer, administrator, technicians and cleaners, etc.” Such organization-wide engagement ensured that everybody was given a chance to unleash their potential, thereby enhancing the diversity of cultural expressions.

Yet, Khuon is very clear about the most significant impact upon the local communities: “poverty reduction”. Community members gain valuable skills, which they can then use to improve their life conditions and boost their businesses. And it is not just about hard skills, but soft skills, too, which provide invaluable life lessons to these rising performers, cultural managers and other professionals to succeed in all their endeavors. With the rise in employability, he joyfully declares, “poverty is reduced from day to day”.

With their precious experience, both Hieng and Khuon will continue to push for the transformation of Cambodia’s arts industry, making it more diverse, more resilient and more sustainable. To them, their organization has become their home, and will be so for many more promising talents. Phare Ponleu Selpak keeps illumining the path for many rising performers across Cambodia, for those who had lost hope are now finding a new light away from darkness. Let the brightness of arts shine on many more brilliant futures ahead.

The staff at Phare Ponleu Selpak Performing Arts School in Battambang, Cambodia (Source: Phare Ponleu Selpak website)

UNESCO’s International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD) is a funding mechanism of the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions to support the emergence of the dynamic cultural and creative industries in developing countries.  For more information on the IFCD and the projects it supports, please visit:

**This article has been produced in the frame of the project Development of a communication strategy and the implementation plan as well as the strategy implementation services, for UNESCO. 13 human-impact articles were produced for dissemination in UNESCO’s website and social media. The stories highlight the projects implemented by UNESCO (including the International Fund for Cultural Diversity) and the impact achieved on the beneficiaries through an “IAI” approach, by focusing attention on Issue, Action and Impact. GlobalCAD directly tapped the beneficiaries based on contacts facilitated by UNESCO to obtain their testimonies and multimedia files related to the projects.*

Amanda Ortiz
Amanda Ortiz
Amanda is a Communications Intern for GlobalCAD.