Building Cambodia’s Capacity to Provide Disaster Relief

I hope everyone enjoyed the Khmer New Year holiday and that your “Year of the Horse” is off to a great start. As for the Embassy, we kicked off the New Year with our annual Angkor Sentinel exercise. Now in its fifth year, Angkor Sentinel brings together U.S. and Cambodian armed forces to hone their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief skills for use in the event of a natural disaster or other type of humanitarian crisis. Through battalion staff training, engineering exchanges, medical training, and peacekeeping preparation activities, Angkor Sentinel has evolved into a major security cooperation activity that has strengthened the bonds of friendship and collaboration among our military personnel that will contribute to a coordinated response to regional emergencies when they arise.

Generals Goodale (center left) and Manet (center right) greet soldiers during the Angkor Sentinel opening.

Generals Goodale (center left) and Manet (center right) greet soldiers during the Angkor Sentinel opening.

Angkor Sentinel began on Monday, a sweltering day, at the Training Center for Multinational Peacekeeping Forces in Kampong Speu province. During the opening ceremony, U.S. Army Pacific Representative Brigadier General John Goodale and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Representative Lieutenant General Hun Manet addressed the nearly 1,000 participating U.S. and Cambodian soldiers, emphasizing the value of learning from each other and using those lessons to help others around the world. Throughout the exercise, both Cambodian and U.S. soldiers are learning valuable tactics, techniques, and procedures that will enable them to respond effectively and efficiently to man-made and natural disasters that they may face at home, regionally, and in UN peacekeeping missions around the world.

Members of the Idaho Army National Guard stand at attention among Cambodian soldiers during the Angkor Sentinel 2014 opening ceremony.

Members of the Idaho Army National Guard stand at attention among Cambodian soldiers during the Angkor Sentinel 2014 opening ceremony.

In what has become an Angkor Sentinel tradition, U.S. and Cambodian soldiers also participated in a blood drive to help improve the level of Cambodia’s blood bank supply. In the spirit of humanitarian leadership, Generals Manet and Goodale were the first donors to give blood, with nearly 110 U.S. and Cambodian soldiers joining in the drive. A blood donation truly is a “gift of life,” and I am very proud that Angkor Sentinel’s blood drive will help to save the lives of sick and injured Cambodians, while also bringing our two nations closer together.

Generals Goodale and Manet were among the first to donate blood in an effort to increase Cambodia’s blood reserves.

Generals Goodale and Manet were among the first to donate blood in an effort
to increase Cambodia’s blood reserves.

I would like to thank the members of the Idaho Army National Guard and the Royal Cambodian Army for their participation in Angkor Sentinel and for demonstrating such a strong commitment to learning from one another. In an ever connected world, the ability to work together collaboratively and effectively can make a crucial difference during times of crisis, so I look forward to seeing the U.S.-Cambodia military relationship continue to strengthen in the years ahead.

How else can we strengthen U.S.-Cambodia cooperation in times of natural disaster in the region? What would encourage more people to donate blood in Cambodia?

Celebrating the Khmer New Year

Today marks the second day of the three-day Khmer New Year celebration in Cambodia. This year I decided to stay in Phnom Penh for the holiday, and I have been surprised to see how quiet the city becomes at this time of the year. The streets are nearly empty, store fronts are shuttered, most restaurants are closed, and even the normally constant sound of construction is silenced – all in sharp contrast to the normal hustle and bustle of life in Phnom Penh.

Sisowath Quay is normally a bustling thoroughfare but is now very quiet during Khmer New Year. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For Cambodians, the Khmer New Year is a time to reconnect with the entire family, traveling far to visit parent, grandparents, and other relatives. As the empty streets of Phnom Penh attest, the majority of Cambodians still have their family roots in the provinces.

In the lead up to Khmer New Year, Cambodians leave Phnom Penh in droves to return to their home provinces to visit parents and other relatives. (Photo credit: AP Images)

On the first day of Khmer New Year, Maha Songkran, also known as “Great Almanac Day” since it marks the end of the previous year and the start of a new one, Cambodians offer thanks and gratitude to the Buddha for his teachings. Many dress up, light candles, and burn incense at shrines to welcome the New Year angel. To receive blessings, people prepare food to offer the monks at temples. Another way Cambodians try to ensure good luck for the coming year is to wash different parts of their body with holy water during the day – face in the morning, chest in the afternoon, and feet in the evening.

Cambodians offer food to the monks during a merit making ceremony in order to receive blessings on Maha Songkran or “Great Almanac Day.” (Photo credit: AP Images)

On Virak Wanabat, or “Worship Day,” Cambodians offer gifts to parents and other elders. They also donate money or clothes to those less fortunate to mark the second day of Khmer New Year. On the final day, Virak Leang Sak, or “Rank and Promotion Day,” Cambodians perform goods deeds in the hope it will bring future happiness. Many clean Buddha statues with blessed water and bath their elderly relatives to get good wishes and advice.

A Cambodian girl douses a statue of Buddha with blessed water during Virak Leang Sak or “Rank and Promotion Day.” (Photo credit: AP Images)

Although life in Cambodia slows down at this time, it never stops. There are still emergencies, essential services, and other situations that require some workers to forgo the revelry to ensure their fellow citizens are protected and cared for. I would like to express my appreciation to those who must remain on duty over the Khmer New Year holiday, folks like law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, and utility workers. Thank you for your dedication and sacrifice.

Cambodians offer financial assistance to those less fortunate on Virak Wanabat, or Worship Day. (Photo credit: AP Images)

To all of my Cambodian readers who have made the journey home, I hope you are having a wonderful Khmer New Year spending quality time with family and friends. May the Year of the Horse bring you and your family new opportunities and a bounty of the four Buddhist blessings: compassion, love, joy, and equanimity.

Maneuvering through the City’s Traffic

As many of you know, traffic in Phnom Penh can wreak havoc on your schedule and prevent you from getting to your destination on time. With more and more cars and motos taking to the streets each day, it is becoming a major challenge for traffic police and city officials to manage traffic congestion. Without an effective strategy to reduce traffic congestion, doing business in Phnom Penh will become more difficult and Cambodia will be at a competitive disadvantage when ASEAN regional economic integration occurs next year.

Motos and cars share a congested street in Phnom Penh.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Previously, I wrote about the impact of Cambodia’s urban development on traffic congestion (A Growing Skyline). The pace of construction in Phnom Penh remains unrelenting, with new office buildings, luxury apartments, and shopping malls seeming to emerge from out of nowhere. This development creates additional demand on the city’s roads and bridges, water and sewer lines, and electrical grid, causing the city to deal with the enormous challenges of upgrading and expanding its infrastructure.

These buildings under construction are an example of the real estate boom in Phnom Penh. (Photo credit: AP Images)

So how does Phnom Penh address these challenges and manage the traffic? Urban planning is used effectively by cities around the world to find the right balance of new development and infrastructure investment to sustain future population growth. In short, urban planning enables city officials, businesses, and citizens to play a role in creating a long-range vision for Phnom Penh.

Workers constructing a new building in Phnom Penh.
(Photo credit: AP Images)

By coordinating investments in roads and a public transportation system, urban planning has the potential to manage traffic congestion and move people around the city efficiently. A recent example was the introduction of a pilot public bus service along Monivong Boulevard. The success of this bus service demonstrates the public’s demand for alternative transportation and is a step in the right direction in reducing traffic in Phnom Penh.

In February 2014, Phnom Penh introduced a pilot bus service along Monivong Boulevard. The success of this service demonstrates demand for public transportation. (Photo credit: AP Images)

I am confident that through urban planning and deliberate collaboration among city officials, businesses, and citizens, a long-term vision of development will transform Phnom Penh into a modern, prosperous city that will be able to compete in the ASEAN Economic Community.

May you and your families have a blessed Khmer New Year. Please travel safely as you visit relatives and friends across the country.

Khmer New Year – Honoring Tradition and Renewing Hope for the Future

Since arriving in Cambodia two years ago, I have seen firsthand how the Cambodian people continually strive to bring positive change to their personal lives and the welfare of their country. In times of rapid change, like Cambodia is currently experiencing, I believe tradition plays an important role in reminding us of the things that we need to protect and cherish. Khmer New Year – historically celebrated at the end of Cambodia’s harvest season when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor – presents the perfect opportunity for us to count our blessings and renew our hope for the future.

I joined several of my Cambodian colleagues in offering a prayer of thanksgiving during the Embassy’s Khmer New Year celebration.

Last Friday, our Cambodian staff members organized the annual Khmer New Year celebration for the Embassy community. It was a wonderful opportunity for Cambodians and Americans alike to enjoy traditional Khmer culture, games, food, and dance, as well as one another’s company. The Khmer New Year has been observed since ancient times, and like countless such celebrations before, a group of venerable Buddhist monks opened our event with a ritual blessing.

As part of their blessing, the Buddhist monks gently tossed jasmine flowers on the assembled guests.

The beauty of Cambodian culture was on full display throughout, starting with the traditional Blessing Dance performed by members of Cambodian Fine Arts. Dressed in exquisite costumes, the dancers moved gracefully on stage, captivating the audience with their delicate, but expressive, poses and gestures.

The Blessing Dance performance was a great example of the refined beauty of traditional Khmer culture.

Classical Khmer elegance was followed by the lively Coconut Dance, a folk dance about the ways of romance and courtship, which was presented by some of the Embassy’s Cambodian staff members. Several of our American staff members also took to the stage to honor Cambodian culture by presenting a fun fashion show of different forms of traditional Cambodian dress. It was wonderful to see these colleagues share their enthusiasm and artistic talent with their co-workers.

Several of our Cambodian staff members showcased their artistic talents in the Coconut Dance.

Our American staff members put on a memorable fashion show of traditional costumes.

A big thanks to all the musicians, dancers, and our own staff members for their outstanding performances.

The celebration would not have been complete without the fun and friendly competition of traditional Khmer games. After some practice at last year’s Khmer New Year party, I felt confident heading into a game of Bos Ang’khun, which is played by throwing an inedible fruit seed (“ang’khun”) at targets. Unfortunately, my team lost the first round, and we were all subjected to the penalty of having our knees knocked! Seeing that everyone was having a great time, I thought the punishment was well worth it!

I received my punishment in a game of bos ang’khun.

We tested our physical strength in a game of tug-of-war, which is called Teanh Proatt in Khmer.

I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to all our Cambodian staff members for organizing a program that everyone thoroughly enjoyed. More importantly, I am grateful for all of their outstanding accomplishments and hard work during the past year. Without their talents and dedication, the U.S. Embassy would not be able to carry out its mission.

To all of my Cambodian readers, as you gather with your families and return to your home towns in the coming days, I would like to wish you a peaceful, prosperous, happy, and safe Khmer New Year. May the Year of the Horse be filled with dreams that come true. Suor Sdey Chhnam Thmei!

Working Toward a Mine-free Cambodia

Each year, landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) kill and injure scores of Cambodians. The millions of pieces of explosive remnants of war scattered across Cambodia are an unfortunate legacy of the many years of conflict this country endured. However, tremendous progress has been made over the past 20 years to remove this threat.

I had the honor of presenting a donation of essential underwater demining equipment, along with a refurbished storage facility, to the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

In commemoration of International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, I had the honor on Thursday of presenting a donation of essential underwater demining equipment, along with a refurbished storage facility, to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). This U.S. government donation represents our ongoing commitment for humanitarian mine action and UXO clearance operations in Cambodia.

I was delighted to meet the brave men of the Underwater Demining Unit. CMAC is the first organization in Southeast Asia to develop an underwater UXO recovery program

CMAC employs mine-detection dogs in its effort to survey land for UXO.

After the ceremony, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the many steps involved in UXO clearance operations. I learned that finding the location of landmines and UXO and removing them from the ground are very difficult processes that require highly trained staff, specific tools, and a lot of time and resources.

Locating UXO is the first task in the process to make an area safe from explosive remnants of war. In this photo, a HALO Trust team uses a metal detector to locate a landmine.

I want to recognize the demining organizations that were part of the UXO clearance demonstrations, including CMAC, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Hazardous Areas Life-Support Organization (HALO) Trust, Golden West Foundation, and Norwegian People’s Aid. These organizations have been excellent partners with the U.S. government in working to make Cambodia a safer place.

MAG demonstrated how this tank, operated by remote control, could mechanically remove landmines and UXO.

Finally, I would like to thank the brave men and women working on the front lines to remove UXO for accepting the inherent risks associated with this operation. Their determined efforts to eliminate landmines and explosive remnants of war have greatly contributed to the decline in casualties – both killed and wounded – in Cambodia.

The Golden West Foundation team explains to me how its explosive harvesting works. Here I am holding a model charge that can destroy several mines.

I look forward to continuing our work with the Cambodian government and our partners on UXO clearance. By eliminating these dangerous legacies of war, we are protecting the lives of the innocent, providing opportunities for the least fortunate, and making Cambodia a safer place.

The Next Generation – A Good Example for Democracy

We often express our opinions on current events and hot topics in a variety of ways. Some of us write blogs, post our opinions on Facebook and Twitter, while others simply share their thoughts over a cup of coffee in the company of good friends. But can you imagine what it would be like to debate the most important issues of the day on live television? A group of very impressive young Cambodians recently did just that in a television program that was both entertaining to watch and a powerful tool for promoting democracy and dialogue in Cambodia.

On the final episode of Season Three of Neak Bantor Vean, the top three finalists (center) received prizes like internships and a study trip to the United States.

Neak Bantor Vean (“The Next Generation”) proved to be a fascinating forum for televised debate among young Cambodians. In Season Three of the program, which just concluded last week, 24 bright young Cambodians from 18 to 27 years of age competed for the title “Debate Champion.” Each week, the contestants were challenged on their ability to conduct research on an assigned debate topic, synthesize their research findings, and debate each other in front of a live audience. Following each debate, viewers called into a hotline and cast votes to decide which contestants advanced through the competition.

Are you a fan of The Next generation program? Did you call the hotline to vote for any of the contestants?

A project funded by USAID and implemented by the International Republican Institute, The Next Generation’s objective was to illustrate how debate plays an indispensable role in the search for solutions to the challenges that face modern societies. The debate topics chosen for Season Three covered a wide range of issues, including whether a quota is necessary for women’s participation in politics, whether Facebook should be censored, and whether provincial governors should be elected or appointed. As these topics are timely and relevant to Cambodia, I am sure the Cambodian public benefited tremendously from the thoughtful discussions among the program’s contestants.

Eang Linda was crowned the champion of The Next Generation.

What really made the program so captivating, however, was the effort and talent of the contestants. They were truly intelligent, articulate, and poised in handling the unique challenges of live debate. In the season finale, viewers selected 20-year-old Eang Linda as the Debate Champion of the third season. As a reward for winning the top prize, she will travel on a study tour to the United States, where she will meet with professional mentors in the public and private sectors. I have no doubt that she will take full advantage of this well-deserved opportunity and that she will accomplish great things for Cambodia in the future.

Moderator Ou Virak joined my deputy Jeff Daigle in congratulating Eang Linda for winning the top prize of a study tour to the United States.

Debate is vital to the democratic development of every society. This television series has shown us how young people can come up with fresh ideas, defend their ideas through research and sound analysis, and make convincing arguments about how to address the challenges facing Cambodia. These young people also showed us how to listen respectfully to opponents, how to learn from having our arguments challenged, and how to embrace the back-and-forth of debate as a creative force rather than something to be feared. Simply put, these young Cambodians are a good example of how democracy is supposed to work. Congratulations to the contestants from all three seasons!

Do you agree that public debates are helpful for finding solutions to problems? Is there an issue in Cambodia that you think should be explored further through debates?

Traditional Khmer Music Meets Americana

Cambodia has a rich musical tradition that is drawing increasing attention on the world stage. Which is why I was so pleased that the U.S. musical group The Amigos recently traveled to Cambodia to collaborate with and learn from Cambodian musicians. Based in New York, The Amigos are a lively ensemble with an “Americana” musical style that brings together many genres, including bluegrass, jazz, and country music. As part of the U.S. Department of State’s American Music Abroad program, The Amigos kicked off their five-nation Asia tour in Cambodia last week.

The Amigos – Sam Reider, Will Clark, Noah Garabedian, Justin Poindexter, and Brianna Thomas (from left to right)

Collaboration with Cambodian musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) was the emphasis of their stop in Cambodia. I was tremendously impressed that after spending just a few hours rehearsing together, the Cambodian and American musicians were able to join together to perform both traditional Khmer songs and the band’s unique blend of Americana music. This special partnership produced some wonderful music, while allowing all of the musicians to share ideas and learn more about each other’s culture.

With support from Amrita Performing Arts, The Amigos and Cambodian musicians from RUFA performed together in Kampong Speu.

With these talented musicians working together, it was no surprise that they delighted thousands of Cambodians at concerts in Phnom Penh and Kampong Speu province, with many people expressing great pleasure at seeing Cambodian and American musicians performing together. Whether singing in English or Khmer, the warmth and depth of the music really resonated with the audiences. Particularly captivating was the moment when Brianna Thomas and Kep Chanthou joined together for a rendition of the traditional Khmer folk song “Sarika Keo Euy.” What a beautiful sound!

In Phnom Penh, Brianna Thomas and Kep Chanthou sang “Sarika Keo Euy,” a traditional Khmer folk song.

During their time in Cambodia, The Amigos also conducted a master class for RUFA students and met with a local traditional music group in Kampong Speu. The group from Kampong Speu specializes in Areak, an ancient form of Cambodian spiritual music. The Areak musicians, ranging in age from mid-40s to late-80s, told The Amigos about the challenges of getting younger Cambodians interested in this traditional form of Khmer music. Areak is an important part of Cambodia’s heritage, and the U.S. Embassy is proud to support efforts to preserve it through a grant from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. I’m glad The Amigos took the opportunity to learn more about it.

The Amigos and the Areak musicians performed a traditional Cambodian folk song together.

A quote from The Amigos sums up their tour in Cambodia: “Going out to perform with our new Cambodian Amigos. Traditional Khmer music meets Americana.” The word “amigos” is Spanish for “friends,” and the magical music created during the tour truly reflected a spirit of camaraderie – sharing, collaborating, and making new “amigos.”

The Amigos led a master class for Cambodian music students and faculty at RUFA in Phnom Penh.

I would like to thank the musicians from RUFA who worked on this collaboration with The Amigos – Keo Sonankavei, Keo Dorivan, Keo Sophy, Say Tola, and Kep Chanthou. I applaud all of you, as well as Yos Chandara, Dean of RUFA’s music department, for your hard work to preserve and share traditional Khmer music and Cambodian culture with the world.

The Amigos and Cambodian musicians from RUFA thank the audience in Kampong Speu.

Last but not least, I want to recognize the members of The Amigos – Justin Poindexter, Sam Reider, Noah Garabedian, Will Clark, and Brianna Thomas. Thank you for being such outstanding U.S. cultural ambassadors. During your time here, your talents, your open hearts, and your passion for music made a powerful contribution to the strengthening of bonds between the United States and Cambodia. You have many new friends in Cambodia, so please visit us again!

The Amigos meet some of their fans in Kampong Speu.

How do you think we can work together to preserve the traditional arts and culture of Cambodia?

The Missing Picture – A Remarkable Achievement in Filmmaking and Preserving Memories

Last week, the world’s most famous filmmakers and movie stars gathered in Hollywood for the Academy Awards (commonly known as “The Oscars”). In the lead-up to the awards ceremony, I heard many Cambodians expressing great pride that a Cambodian film was in the running for an Oscar for the very first time. “The Missing Picture,” an extraoridanry documentary by celebrated filmmaker Rithy Panh, was a finalist in the category of Best Foreign Language Film.

Prior to receiving the Oscar nomination, “The Missing Picture” had already won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is now playing in theaters in Cambodia. (Photo credit: The Missing Picture Official Facebook page)

The Oscar nomination was a truly well-deserved recognition for Rithy Panh and his team. I had the pleasure of meeting the filmmaker last year when he kindly invited my Embassy staff and me for a screening of his film at the Bophana Center. (Read that blog entry here). Watching the film was a captivating experience. I still vividly remember some of the most powerful and moving scenes in the movie, from the warmth and liveliness of Rithy Panh’s childhood home, to the stark and cruel settings where unspeakable atrocities were committed.

When we met last year, Rithy Panh also told me about the work of archiving documents of the past and present at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh.

It does not take a film critic to appreciate the creative brilliance of the film. Rithy Panh effectively addressed the difficult topic of the Khmer Rouge tragedy in previous films, but he broke new ground with “The Missing Picture.” With images of the events he wanted to document nowhere to be found, and the people he wanted to honor long lost, he ingeniously used hundreds of clay figures to reconstruct his memories. Great credit goes to the very talented sculptor Mang Samrith for brining life to these clay figures, which allowed the audience to get to know Rithy Panh’s family and other characters in the film in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.

Sculptor Mang Samrith painstakingly re-created Rithy Panh’s memories with hundreds of clay figures. (Photo credit: Bophana Center)

In addition to the artistic and technical merits of the film, it was Rithy Panh’s sense of purpose that made “The Missing Picture” so compelling. As he explained, preserving memories and documenting history were his ways of restoring the human dignity that the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy. “The Missing Picture” has received acclaim and touched audiences worldwide, but perhaps the most important affirmation for Rithy Pahn came from his fellow survivors. Earlier this month, the movie made its U.S. debut in the city of Long Beach, home to the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia. In interviews after they saw the film, survivors of the Khmer Rouge period praised Rithy Panh for honoring their experiences and for poignantly telling the stories that they still have great difficulty recounting.

Rithy Panh carried with him a clay figure of his young self to Hollywood. (Photo credit: Rithy Panh’s Twitter page @RPanh)

When the awards ceremony was over, some of you might have felt disappointed by the results. But with or without the award, Rithy Panh and his crew have achieved a remarkable feat in moviemaking, and in giving voice to all the people who were lost or are still recovering from Cambodia’s tragic period of history. These achievements will outlive the prestige that can be bestowed by any award. The clay figures in the movie will be long remembered, even without the company of the golden Oscar statuette. Congratulations again to Rithy Panh and his team for all of their success!

Do you associate films with memories of the past and present? What are the films that you find most powerful and moving?

The Tireless Work to Recover the Missing

Last week I had the honor of visiting a site in Kratie province where a joint team of Americans and Cambodians is working to recover the remains of a U.S. soldier who went missing in 1971. It is believed that the soldier was lost in a helicopter that crash-landed on a riverbank. Due to considerable challenges at the recovery site, the work requires true dedication, tireless energy, and a deep expertise, and I am very grateful to all those contributing their time and talents to this operation.

At the recovery site in Kratie Province, master diver SFC Tyler Dodd (left) explained the complex operation to find any remains located underwater. Lt. Col. Culpepper of JPAC (center) accompanied me to the site.

Rich Wills, the recovery leader, is an experienced anthropologist specializing in the investigation of underwater wrecks. His training in archaeology guides the team, allowing them to continually assess their progress and adapt their approach. Sergeant First Class Tyler Dodd, the team leader at the site, is a master diver. He is supervising the diving operation necessary to locate any remains lost underwater. Mr. Wills and SFC Dodd have participated in recovery investigations all over the world, and their skills are demonstrated by the steady progress of the team and the careful way the work is organized at the Kratie site.

SFC Dodd (left) showed me and HE Sieng Lapresse (right) equipment used in the underwater recovery operation.

In a blog entry last October, I wrote about the indispensable cooperation of the Royal Government of Cambodia in assisting the work of the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Cambodia. The team in Kratie province, organized by JPAC, could not accomplish its mission without this invaluable partnership.

Recovery leader Rich Wills (right) talked about some of the objects that have been recovered at the Kratie site.

I would like to express my gratitude for the support and assistance of the Cambodian authorities – especially His Excellency Sieng Lapresse, Under Secretary of State with the Ministry of Interior, who accompanied me on the visit to Kratie. We both appreciated having the opportunity to meet the personnel at the site and learning about the highly skilled work that is being done there.

I am grateful to Rich Wills (left), SFC Tyler Dodd (center left), HE Sieng Lapresse (center right), Embassy Defense Attaché Col. Craig Tippins (right), and everyone else associated with our recovery efforts for their dedication to this mission.

The JPAC motto is “Until they are home,” which demonstrates the U.S. resolve to bringing home every American POW/MIA no matter how long, no matter what it takes. The United States is privileged to have, and grateful for, the outstanding assistance we receive from the Cambodian government in this noble endeavor.

What are your thoughts about how the United States and Cambodia can continue to enhance their partnership?

American Country Music Comes to Cambodia

I’ve always enjoyed listening to music from a variety of American genres – jazz, blues, rock and roll, you name it. Having lived in Cambodia for almost two years now, I’ve also come to enjoy some of the unique musical styles popular in Cambodia. Music is truly a universal language that can bring together people from diverse cultures, so I was delighted that the American country music band Blended 328 came to Cambodia last week as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Arts Envoy Program.

I had a lot of fun “jamming” with the members of Blended 328 during a rehearsal.

Blended 328 traveled out to the provinces to present a series of free public concerts. They also spent a significant amount of time interacting directly with young Cambodians, including conducting a master class for music students at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) and meeting with aspiring young musicians wherever they went. It was very gratifying to see these successful American artists encouraging young Cambodians to pursue their own musical dreams.

Students from Vijeasataan Apiwat Polakor in Takeo province joining Blended 328 for a song

Standing room only for Blended 328 at Vijeasataan Apiwat Polakor

Connecting with young people was a particular focus of the band members during their stay in Cambodia, and the group was touched by the warm reception that all the students gave them. In particular they enjoyed teaching a country line dance to children from Vijeasataan Apiwat Polakor, who then joined the band on stage in Takeo to perform the number.

Blended 328 with the children and staff of M’Lop Tapang

Band member Fran Hart teaching a line dance to children at M’Lop Tapang

Vijeasataan Apiwat Polakor students performing the line dance in Takeo province with Blended 328

Over 6,000 people enjoyed the band’s performances in Takeo and Sihanoukville, and I am very happy that so many Cambodians attended these free concerts. For many of the concert goers, the highlight of the night was when the audience joined Blended 328 in singing the popular Cambodian folk song “Arab Piya.” There are few things that bring people together like the experience of belting out a lively song.

With production assistance from Amrita Performing Arts, Blended 328 and special guest Pou Khlaing performed for thousands in Sihanoukville.

Some young Cambodian singers joined band member Dallas Brown in a rousing rendition of “Arab Piya.”

I want to express my deep appreciation to the members of Blended 328 – Gabe Jordan, Fran Hart, Kimberly Phillips, Thomas Spann, David Mescon, and Dallas Brown – for coming to Cambodia and using their outstanding musical talents to build bridges of friendship and understanding between our two countries. I hope we can get them to come back soon!

The members of Blended 328 with aspiring Cambodian musicians

In what other ways do you think we could increase mutual understanding between the people of Cambodia and the United States?