Water Festival’s Political Spectacle on the Wane

When Prime Minister Hun Sen abruptly canceled this year’s Water Festival for the fourth time in five years, many criticized the move as a cynical political ploy designed to keep crowds out of Phnom Penh.

But the Water Festival, in its modern incarnation, has always been as much a political tool as a cultural event, intended to display to Cambodians a scene in which national leaders enact a ritual of mastery over the elements. It is fitting, then, that as the CPP’s once-ironclad grip on Cambodian public life has seemed to loosen in recent years, the government has largely opted to cancel the event rather than risk losing control over the festival’s message.

From left, Prime Minister Hun Sen, CPP President Chea Sim, then-head of state Heng Samrin and King Norodom Sihanouk sit on a dais together in a photograph from the archives of Agence Kampuchea Presse believed to have been taken at the Water Festival in 1991.

News Analyisis

Early in the life of the holiday, after the Cambodian capital was permanently moved from Odong to Phnom Penh in 1866 at the be­hest of French colonial administrators, the leaders on show were kings or their representatives—Brahmin palace priests—who would cut a thread strung across the Tonle Sap river to symbolically release the waters.

More recently, they have been the three “samdechs” (“highest lords”) of the Cambodian People’s Party—Mr. Hun Sen, Heng Sam­rin and the late Chea Sim—who have self-consciously adopted royal titles and symbols, including sponsoring boats and presiding over the Water Festival, in an effort to carve out a place for themselves at the top of the socio-political hierarchy once reserved for royalty.

“Definitely the Water Festival and the status of righteous leadership connected to patronizing it has been put to political use throughout the last two decades,” said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Swedish academic and vice president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.

“In 1991, Sihanouk opened the first Water Festival held in Cambodia under royal patronage since 1969, merely six days after his return to the country after thirteen years in exile,” she said. “But the year before his return, in 1990, Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim had already presided over boat races from the steps of the Royal Palace. This contestation over appropriating leadership in conjunction with the water festival has gone on ever since.”

In a 2008 article, “Ritual in 1990 Cambodian Political Theatre,” anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood traced the many ways in which the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party — the direct precursor to today’s CPP — co-opted and adapted royal rituals when they revived the festival in 1990.

This was a critical time in the life of the State of Cambodia (SOC), a transitional government sandwiched between the Vietnamese-backed socialist regime of the 1980s and today’s nominally democratic Kingdom of Cambodia. A year before the return of King Norodom Sihanouk to the country and the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, CPP stalwarts Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin were deeply concerned with cementing their government’s legitimacy, emphasizing their Khmerness and disassociating themselves from some of the more unpopular aspects of socialism — especially restrictions on religion and traditional cultural practices.

Among other steps taken to consolidate public support during this period, Mr. Hun Sen apologized for the poor treatment of monks during the 1980s and the government reinstituted Buddhism as the state religion. It was in this context that the regime decided to stage the 1990 Water Festival, with Chea Sim leading the organizing committee. In addition to boat races, other rituals were also revived for the first time in decades: the pounding of young rice known as ambok, fortune telling based on candle drippings, and the “sampeah preah khae,” or salute to the moon.

“By sponsoring these events, the leaders of the SOC were asserting their legitimacy as the rulers of Cambodia — in the context of the launching of the new state of Cambodia — to their rivals in the other factions and to the international community, as well as to the population that they governed inside the country,” Ms. Ledgerwood wrote. “They were seizing control of the right to declare the meaning of the three key cultural symbols of what it means to be Cambodian, the words that would become the national slogan of the new Kingdom of Cambodia: Nation, Religion, and King.”

Crucially, several of the festival’s events and rituals were held within the grounds of the Royal Palace, including royal ballets rarely performed since the 1960s. The candle-dripping ceremony was performed by a Ministry of Propaganda official, but he could trace his ancestry back to the Brahman priesthood, Ms. Ledgerwood observed. A program for the festival emphasized the various rituals’ ties to age-old kingly and Buddhist practices.

“Hun Sen, Chea Sim, and Heng Samrin were seeking to enact, however uncomfortably, a series of actions and a ritual activity that would appeal to a Khmer public that was still (to varying degrees) steeped in a tradition of celebrating hierarchical arrangements of leadership tied to the public demonstration of political, economic, and religious efficacy,” she wrote.

This same impulse paved the way for the CPP’s sponsorship of pagoda-building and other acts of Buddhist charity, as well as the elite patronage networks that still underpin Cambodian society today, Ms. Ledgerwood argued. It also sent a message to Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s beloved former king, who was still in exile and leading an armed resistance along the border: There is a place for you here, but life in Cambodia will go on with or without you.

A year later, in 1991, King Sihanouk did indeed return to Cambodia to take the throne, and appeared at the Water Festival alongside Mr. Hun Sen, Mr. Samrin and Chea Sim, an indelible image that put the three CPP leaders on equal footing with the revered monarch.

The festival grew in size after that point and was held yearly through 2010, attracting millions of revelers to the capital, where they congregated in the parks, camped out in the streets, and gawked at the fledgling skyscrapers and escalators.

“In the old days, it was a huge opportunity for the rural population to actually come and be awed by the city of Phnom Penh,” said Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank. “All the city buildings and the infrastructure and the crowds and the modernization, that’s usually a bigger part of the Water Festival than the boat races.”

Sebastian Strangio, author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” noted in a recent interview that unlike the other two major holidays in the Cambodian calendar, Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year, centralized state power plays a key role in the Water Festival. On other holidays, people living in the city generally return to their provincial hometowns; during the Water Festival, rural-dwellers make their way to the capital to see the government put on a show.

“People come to see the things the government does,” Mr. Strangio said. “It festoons Phnom Penh with decorations in an attempt to showcase the development of the city and its centrality to the Cambodian nation.”

Boat races are spearheaded by the government’s National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals. Ministries pay for floats to grace the river, while racing boats are almost always sponsored by CPP officials, members of parliament and wealthy businessmen known as “oknhas” — another old royal title revived under the CPP to reward donors to the government. Being a patron of the racing boats is prestigious but pricey, with sponsors footing the bill for all the paddlers’ expenses and paying to have a vessel carved from expensive wood, meaning that it is off limits to all but the most wealthy and powerful. Even the moon salute and fortune telling ritual held at the Royal Palace last year took place under the watchful eye of CPP Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol, and was aired nationwide by state broadcaster TVK.

The 2010 Koh Pich stampede opened up a crack in this facade. Over 350 people were crushed to death on an overcrowded bridge on the last night of the festival as they left a concert on the island — a lavish showcase to development built by the well-connected Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation. The event – the country’s single largest loss of life since the Khmer Rouge regime — was deeply traumatic for many Cambodians, and rumors abounded about why it occurred. It was ghosts. It was shoddy construction. It was the Vietnamese. Although the government paid cash compensation to the families of the dead, it never held any festival organizers accountable for the overcrowding that led to the stampede.

Since then, the Water Festival has been held only once. Various excuses have been offered for its cancellation, including flooding, the death of Norodom Sihanouk and, now, a drought. Mr. Strangio suggested that the fact that the government has been so willing to jettison the rich symbolism of the festival could be indicative of deeper concerns about its ability to control the populace.

“What was once such an event of celebration, of national coming-together, has been cancelled, reflecting a general loss of confidence on the part of the government,” he said.

Mr. Virak went a step further, noting that government officials’ public displays of wealth and patronage, which may have once presented an advantage in a country desperate for safety and stability, have now become a liability in the face of an energized opposition and growing political awareness.

“One of the core issues of the opposition, one of the rallying points, is actually talking about inequality, and there’s nothing more stark than when the rural population comes in and sees Aeon Mall, for example,” he said. “They might go to Phnom Penh and be awed, but there must be a lot of things going on in their minds and heart — the injustice and inequality is so, so obvious.”

This year, the festival was cancelled suddenly in late October, even after government assurances that the show would go on. In a speech earlier this month, Mr. Hun Sen lashed out at critics who questioned the decision, suggesting that they might be subject to protests outside their homes. He added that he would personally pay pop singers to give concerts in the capital, and issued an open invitation to boatmen to organize their own races.

Nobody appeared to take Mr. Hun Sen up on the offer. Instead, as the holiday drew to a quiet close on Thursday night, the power went out across the country. Shortly afterward, at 11 p.m., Mr. Hun Sen logged onto his new official Facebook page to give a live speech, talking directly to his 1.38 million followers to explain the reason behind the outage. He apologized directly to the Cambodian people — a concession that was not forthcoming after the stampede that killed hundreds.

Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Hun Sen now perceives that trappings of royalty and displays of centralized power are not what the younger generation of Cambodians is seeking.
“People are asking for more than just putting your name on sponsorships and making donations,” Mr. Virak said. “People are starting to demand more, and the biggest demand is actually for answers. They need to know the answers to things that don’t make sense to them, things like inequality and injustice. I think Hun Sen probably understands that.”

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