Shaping a nation: names to know in Cambodia

From heads of state to revered artists, get acquainted with this group of heavyweights who have helped shape their nation

King Norodom Sihanouk
Photo: Xinhua

King Norodom Sihanouk

Norodom Sihanouk is perhaps the most revered figure in contemporary Cambodia, having led the country on and off, in various positions, from 1941 to 2004. Following World War II, Sihanouk championed independence from French colonisation, which finally came to fruition in 1953. A lover of the arts, Sihanouk was monarch during the country’s so-called Golden Age of the 1960s, when Cambodia was regarded by many as the most modern and cultured nation in the region. The following decades saw Sihanouk imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, then living in exile following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion that ended the Khmer Rouge’s murderous reign. The King Father, as he came to be known, passed away in October 2012. A few months later, Phnom Penh virtually shut down as hundreds of thousands of mourners came to pay their respects at his funeral.

Prime Minister Hun Sen
Photo: Reuters

Prime Minister Hun Sen

As leader of Cambodia for more than 30 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. The former Khmer Rouge soldier and president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is both cursed and respected for his ability to retain power through canny party politics. His premiership has been rife with contradictions: he is the man who brought peace and stability to the nation, but he regularly earns the ire of human rights groups and the international community. Whether by fair means or foul, it seems likely that Cambodia’s golf-loving strongman will be around for
a while yet.

Photo: Sam Jam

Vann Molyvann

Easily the most exalted figure in Cambodian architecture, Vann Molyvann designed some of Cambodia’s most iconic landmarks, from Phnom Penh’s crumbling White Building and vast Olympic Stadium to the capital’s soaring Independence Monument. He is the de facto leader of the New Khmer Architecture movement, which melded Cambodian construction forms with numerous international modernisms and had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to being a seminal architect, Molyvann was also an urban planner, helping expand Phnom Penh and establish the seaport of Sihanoukville. As the capital industrialises, many of his buildings have been remodelled or demolished to make way for towering skyscrapers.

Pung Chhiv Kek

Pung Chhiv Kek
Photo: Stefan V. Jensen

Pung Chhiv Kek is the highly respected founder and president of non-profit human rights organisation Licadho. Kek received her medical degree in France in 1968 and spent subsequent years conducting research in Cambodia, Brazil, Canada and Angola. In the late 1980s, she played a key role in ending Cambodia’s civil war, facilitating negotiations between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the then-deposed King Norodom Sihanouk. She founded Licadho in 1992, one of the first human rights organisations established in Cambodia’s new civil society. Among its many functions, the organisation has conducted election monitoring, educated voters and provided medical care to prisoners and victims of human rights violations.

Svay Sareth
Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Svay Sareth

Born in 1972 in Battambang, contemporary artist Svay Sareth’s formative years were spent watching his country suffer. As a teenager living in a refugee camp near the Thai border, Sareth took refuge in art, and his subsequent installation and performance works have often featured materials and themes drawn from his time spent close to war. Last year, the artist filmed himself eating rubber sandals, which were often worn by Khmer Rouge soldiers and other revolutionaries in the region. Perhaps his most jarring and famed performance, 2011’s “Mon Boulet” (“My Burden”) saw Sareth pull an 80kg metal globe 250km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.


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