CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For many Cambodians around the world, Khmer New Year is an important time to spend time with friends and family. To make this happen even in times of the coronavirus, a virtual festival will be live-streamed on Saturday for the Cambodian diaspora to enjoy traditional dances and songs from home, as pagodas and churches remain closed this year.
The online celebration, organized by U.S.-based organization International Khmer Assembly (IKARE), will see a range of Cambodian celebrities’ performances from 10 am until 10:30 pm Minnesota-time on a Facebook video stream.
Khmer New Year would have officially been celebrated Tuesday until Thursday. But in Cambodia, the government has postponed the holidays to contain the spread of the virus, and in the US, the government has urged the population to stay home and close all non-essential businesses.
IKARE President Sek Kosol said that the virtual celebration would create space for Cambodians not only in the U.S., but also in Australia, Europe and New Zealand, and Cambodia itself to be together during the New Year.
“We all know that the coronavirus is hurting our Khmer people, some inside and outside the country,” he said. “We wanted to create this program so we can give them hope.”
Sek Kosol said holding virtual Khmer New Year celebrations was especially important given Cambodia’s past.
“Our country experienced war and genocide all over the country [between 1975 and 1979], so in 2020, we don't want our Cambodian people to miss the opportunity to celebrate New Year again,” he said.
The opening of the events under the theme “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Stay Inspired” will be kicked off by Buddhist and Christian leaders Venerable Moeng San and Pastor Sous Sokurt.
Venerable Moeng Sang, abbot of Munisotaram pagoda and president of the Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society, told VOA Khmer that he will be chanting to welcome guests at the virtual Khmer New Year.
“Although we can't celebrate it as usual because of the coronavirus, we still express our heartfelt attitude to be faithful to and to respect our culture and customs,” he said.
About 2 million people have contracted the virus worldwide, killing more than 100,000. In the US, about 600,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus, claiming more than 20,000 lives.
Pastor Suos Sokurt of the Cambodian Church of Nazarene in Minnesota’s Minneapolis will also welcome people.
“I will briefly encourage people to continue to live with hope even when we are facing hardship, especially during COVID-19 outbreak. We have hope in God. God can make this disappear,” he said.
Buddhist temples and churches, previously spaces for Cambodians to come together, have been closed.
Prach Kenya, master of Cambodian martial art Bokator, said he would perform the fighting technique unique to Cambodia. The Battambang-born man – now living in San Francisco in California – said he wanted to pass on his knowledge to the younger generation.
Prach Kenya, who has been a Bokator master for more than 30 years, has taught more than 1,000 students. The man in his 60s currently teaches martial arts to some 200 students, but has temporarily suspended his classes because of the coronavirus.
“I want that especially we, as Cambodians, unite. There are not so many people from Cambodia [in the diaspora] – so we should love one another, and especially our Cambodian culture,” he told VOA in a phone interview.
But the virus being a deadly threat, he said, reminded him of the past.
“As we are under quarantine in the house and can't gather, we must be cautious, telling Cambodians to pay close attention, because this virus is not like the Khmer Rouge,'' Prach Kenya said. ''The Khmer Rouge we see, and we know when we are going to be killed, but this virus is serious, as it's a silent killer. So be careful.”
Other guests include celebrities, such as Jane Saijai who performs Khmer traditional music, and Cambodian singers Vy Chivoan, San Phanith, Chanlai Vorleak, and Sal Chansy, according to organizer Chheangsreng Ngiv.
Phnom Penh-born Kong Dalana, who now lives in Minneapolis, said she was going to present traditional Cambodian games on the live-stream – with a maximum of 10 people participating in the performance because of the virus.
Traditionally played on Khmer New Year, Teang Prot, or Tug of War, many Cambodians will now have to watch the game from behind their laptops or mobiles, as will they have to follow Bos Angkunh (meaning “throwing brown nuts”), where each team gets points for hitting the other team’s nuts, from behind a screen.
Choal Chhoung – where the traditional krama scarf is rolled up, thrown in the air with one end loose and caught by a team before being thrown on – this year will also happen without the cheering crowds. Dalana will also organize a round of the popular catching-game Leak Kanseng.
“It's necessary to show our Cambodian identity for others … to understand Cambodia clearer,” she said.
Khmer-Thai spa businesswoman Saybua Suksawang, who lives in San Diego in California, said she would encourage students and employees to not be anxious about the virtual world.
“For some who are afraid and don’t feel confident with online work, like publishing or posting, I encourage them not to be afraid of trying new things,” she said, adding that it was vital to adjust to online communication with family, friends, and businesses.
(Editor's note: During the pandemic, Sok Khemara is filing from outside of Washington DC)