Sbek Thom is a sacred art form, which is deeply integrated into the Khmer beliefs and traditions. Due to the recent tumultuous history of Cambodia, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of Sbek Thom artists perished, and the art has been on the verge of disappearance.
Sbek Thom as the Royal Ballet, suffered greatly during the Khmer Rouge regime, as did the rest of Cambodian society. During the last two decades, considerable work towards revitalizing and safeguarding has been done. After 1979, most cultural personnel - especially artists who survived the genocide regime came back to their original places of work. Shadow figures were collected from the debris to be repaired and artists once more created new works. After the discovery in the 80s that Mr. Ti Chean and Mr. Mat Noeurm, two of the most revered Sbek Thom artists, were still alive, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts invited them to come from Siem Reap to teach students leather artwork and performance at the Department of Performing Arts.
Sbek Thom, was proclaimed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on 25 November 2005, and featured on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as of 2009. Sbek Thom should receive special technical and financial measures from international institutions through UNESCO in order to allow the Kingdom of Cambodia to safeguard and revitalise this Sbek Thom puppet shadow theatre.
In the whole of Cambodia, there are only four Sbek Thom theatre troupes. At traditional ceremonies, Sbek Thom is often replaced by modern songs and music. This tendency of neglect results in artists being obliged to perform other forms of art to survive. Slowly but surely, they are losing their skills and knowledge and the Sbek Thom performance will be forgotten.
It is why it is very urgent for UNESCO to take immediate action to support the Cambodian Royal Government to safeguard and revitalize this precious Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The next project, supported by Japanese Funds-in-Trust (July 2011-May 2013), will focus on the transmission of Sbek Thom traditions to younger generations and the inventory of Sbek Thom artists and private troupe.