A plan to move Cambodia’s oldest fine arts college is sparking concern among teachers, students and artists.
Located north of the Royal Palace and next to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the dark red building known as the Royal University of Fine Arts has been playing an important role for almost a century, producing successive generations of Cambodian artists. But officials say the school will soon leave for the outskirts of the Cambodian capital due to a planned expansion of the National Museum.
Established in 1918, the university is considered the primary center of arts and culture education in Cambodia.
Proeung Chhieng, a former vice-rector of the university and a former of dean of the school’s Faculty of Choreographic Arts, says the school is like a son to him.
“All of my memories still remain with this school,” he said. “During the Khmer Rouge regime, this place was just a forest. For those who have never seen this place before, they may not feel anything special, but, to me, it’s my everything….
“I took part in clearing the forest, cleaning it and rebuilding it.”
He added that while he understands the reason for the move, he is still wary.
“Our museum is small, I know, and it’s not a bad idea to expand it using RUFA’s land,” he said. “This need is acceptable, actually, as long as it’s not replaced by a business area.”
However, he said, the move could lead to a lower quality of art education in Cambodia, and traveling to the new campus would pose new difficulties for students and professors.
The decision for the move was made by the Ministry of Culture. Thai Norak Satya, secretary of state for the ministry, confirmed to VOA Khmer the plan to move the school, but he said the date had not yet been confirmed.
“First, we need to study the architecture plan. It may not be this year, nor this term, because what we are doing is a big project,” he said. “Given the new environment, the students would be proud to study there. If we look at its layout and design, I’m sure everyone wants it to happen.”
Although the new location is slated to be larger than the current one, the majority of students interviewed by VOA Khmer said moving will end a unique bond between students and their school.
“My unforgettable memory over there is that this school is unlike the other schools,” said Chan Samphors, a second-year student majoring in painting at the university.
Samphors added that he believes the move will decrease the number of art students and lead to a loss of the school’s unique identity.
“From my first step into this school, I felt I wanted to study there,” he said.
“I felt I was surrounded by the soul of arts and culture because this school served and contributed to Khmer arts for almost 100 years.”
Ann Khema, a forth-year student majoring in architecture, said that studying art in an environment like the university’s storied buildings actually contributes to her learning. “RUFA is an art school. It’s good to study with what remains from the ancient time,” she said. “If we move to the new place, everything is new, so it seems to have no sense of art at all. I’m afraid the new place couldn’t even compare to the old one.”
Bong Sovath, the university’s rector, declined to comment for this story. But others have expressed concern over the transparency of the project.
Kem Ley, a social researcher and analyst, said he has no trust in the government relocating public institutions, given the history of privatizing prime government land in Phnom Penh at the expense of historic buildings.
“I don’t find it positive. It’s not a good choice at all,” he said. “To me, it’s just the government’s excuse. Those public institution [buildings] are normally changed to be private ones. I have never seen any institutes get preserved or protected.”
In recent years, numerous government ministries or institutions have been relocated from key locations in the city to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, with their former homes being leased or sold to private business interests. For example, the Ministry of Health was relocated in 2014, with the land handed to well-connected businesswoman Choeung Sopheap.
The Royal University of Fine Arts’ northern campus, once near to the city’s Old Stadium, was also moved to make way for private apartments. Proeung Chhieng recalled that after that school was moved to a new remote location, fewer students and teachers choose to study or work there.
However, the ministry’s Thai Norak Satya insisted that the RUFA land would not be privatized.
“We will preserve the old location,” he said. “We won’t ruin even a single piece of the school because the building itself is also a part of the museum. The Ministry of Culture won’t mistreat the university. Obviously, we would not give up on our heritage. This is called conservation.”