Phnom Penh Water Festival Suspended for Asean Summit 

3 min read
Phnom Penh’s Water Festival in 2014. The Water Festival is among 22 public holidays set to remain on the calendar. (Flickr/PhotAsia)

The Cambodian government canceled Phnom Penh’s Water Festival celebration in order to prepare for the Asean Summit scheduled to start one day after the holiday weekend.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said officials decided to cancel the three-day holiday celebration — featuring boat races along the Tonle Sap river as well as parties and dancing at the capital’s riverside and parks — in order to ensure security for leaders attending the four-day Asean Summit.

The Water Festival holiday, celebrating the shift from monsoon season into dry farming periods as well as the Tonle Sap river’s subsequent flow reversal, is scheduled for November 7-9, while the Asean Summit will be hosted in Phnom Penh from November 10-13.

“The government and authorities [will be] very busy receiving guests as well as providing security for foreign guests,” Siphan said. “Many of the great [foreign] powers will come to Cambodia, that is the reason. Therefore, that is why Samdech [Hun Sen] asked to not hold this ceremony, and let the provinces do it. We want to separate people so they can go and enjoy [the festival] in the provinces, as Phnom Penh will be receiving a lot of guests.”

He added that traditions such as the capital’s boat race will not be lost, only suspended for this year.

A government statement released on Monday added that all public and private schools would be closed from November 10-12.

Hab Touch, a secretary of state for the Culture Ministry, referred questions to a spokesperson, while spokesperson Long Bonna Sereyvath said he was in a meeting. 

Vong Sotheara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he believed the celebration showed Cambodia’s identity and strength as a nation, but he noted that the Water Festival has already been suspended in recent years because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The identity, the traditions, the customs, and the culture of our nation are preserved, but if we continue to preserve [culture] … the government will consider the costs and benefits accordingly,” he said. “The government has the right to think about that.”

Son Chum Chuon, secretary general of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association, said he thinks Phnom Penh should hold Water Festival celebrations even if it coincides with Asean Summit preparations. He initially speculated that the cancelation of the Water Festival could cause the Vietnamese government to crack down on celebrations held by ethnically Khmer people in Vietnam, but then added it would also be a reason to introduce Cambodian traditions to other countries.

“The government should have this traditional ceremony presented while Cambodia is the host of the Asean Summit, and this is an opportunity to present to the Asean member countries, especially those who participated in the Asean program, to know more about our Khmer tradition in this Water Festival,” Chum Chuon said. 

The government initially announced the cancellation of Phnom Penh’s festivities after a Council of Ministers session on Friday, without explaining the reason.

Phnom Penh’s Water Festival celebrations have been canceled six times in the last 11 years. Festivities were suspended for three years in a row: in 2011, due to a stampede across a Koh Pich bridge that killed 350 people the year before; then due to the late King Sihanouk’s death in 2012; and in 2013 for the national election.

The Water Festival was held as usual in 2014, but then canceled again in 2015 reportedly because of low water levels in the river.

More recently, the Water Festival was suspended for 2020 and 2021 to prevent widespread transmission of Covid-19.

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