After three years, Ohio University’s Khmer Studies Forum has evolved into a full-fledged conference. Last month, around 100 people gathered at the forum to discuss a variety of Cambodian topics, reflecting an increased interest compared to previous years.
Christine Su, assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the university, told VOA Khmer the forum had grown into a two-day event, “and not only does it include Ohio University students, but also people interested in Khmer studies from all over the country.”
This year’s conference saw participants from the cities of Boston, New York and Seattle and states as far away as California and Hawaii, she said.
Su, whose father is Cambodian, said the main purpose is to provide opportunities for anyone interested in discussing Cambodian issues, either historical or contemporary.
Topics ranged from the teaching of Khmer language in Hawaii to the use of mobile phones for distance learning in rural Cambodia.
Language, literature, migration, identity, justice for and healing from the Khmer Rouge, technology and development were all discussed. Issues for Cambodian-Americans, including the US policy of forced deportations, were also included.
And although the event was held on the university campus, many guests came from outside academe, including writers, students and community activists.
Him Chanrithy, author of the award-winning memoir “When Broken Glass Floats,” gave the keynote address. She told VOA Khmer this year’s forum was the best she had been to, citing its broad range of topics and guests.
Trent Walker, an American research fellow at the Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University, said the forum encouraged him to continue with Cambodian studies.
“When I was studying at Stanford and other places, I was the only one who majored in Khmer studies, so others couldn’t understand my research,” he said. “But when I am at this forum, I meet many people, Cambodians and other nationals, that share an interest for Khmer studies.”
Huyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese master’s student at Ohio University, said she learned about the event from a Cambodian friend. She decided to talk about love affairs in the Cambodian folktale “Tum Teav” and presented a Vietnamese folktale that many in the Cambodian audience may have been unaware of, a story called “The Durian Tale,” which tells about an 18th-century relationship between a Cambodian woman and a Vietnamese man.
She had come in part as a neighbor to Cambodia, she said.
“I want to show how much I admire their culture, and I want to have mutual understanding between the Vietnamese and Cambodian people,” she said.
Only two Cambodian students are enrolled at the university. One of them, Borei Sylyvan, a master’s student in communications and development, presented a documentary on a Cambodian orphanage.
“Because there are only three Cambodians on campus, and no student association, this forum can help open the eyes of international students about Cambodia, as well as allowing me to meet other Cambodians,” he said.
Tanvir Tanim, a Bangladeshi master’s student in mechanical engineering, said he was impressed that a small number of Cambodians had been able to organize the event. Him Chanrithy’s talk about the Khmer Rouge resonated with a similar tragic history in his country, he said.
Paige Alexis Walters, an American student, said she had read “When Broken Glass Floats” and wanted to hear its author speak. She was pleasantly surprised with the rest of the forum, she said, and planned to come again.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s so refreshing to be around people who are interested in global topics and who are so informed about a region of the world that I have no idea about.”
Donald Jameson, a US diplomat in Cambodia during the 1970s who discussed the country’s “bumpy” development, said the forum’s popularity reflected an increased academic interest in a country growing more stable.
However, he said, that interest goes unmatched in Washington, except in geopolitical discussions, such as China’s expanding influence or the conflict on the Thai border.
The conference wrapped up with presentation in Cambodian cooking, fashion and martial arts.
Su said she was happy the forum went well and had heard more Cambodian students will be coming next year. So it looks like there will be a fourth.