When the former workers of the National Archives of Cambodia set foot in the building after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, they were staggered to find that most of the documents were still in their original places.
Aside from giving one of the building’s three floors over to a storage area for pig feed, the Khmer Rouge – notorious for their nihilistic rejection of the ancien regime – had left the Kingdom’s historical records barely untouched.
“It’s astonishing that Pol Pot didn’t destroy the archives,” says Ky Lim, the NAC’s current deputy director.
“I have no explanation why he didn’t do it.”
Though the Khmer Rouge revolution took a hard line against the educated classes and those with knowledge of foreign languages, the only documents which were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge were those that were yet to be archived – primarily government documents from the 1960-75 period that were being stored at ministry buildings.
In fact, the archives sustained their largest damage during the anarchic period that followed the collapse of the regime, when around a fifth of its documents were destroyed or stolen.
“People were poor at that time: they used the books and documents to make fire, or they just stole the ones they liked,” Ky Lim says.
Today, the NAC – housed in a colonial-era building next to the National Library in central Phnom Penh – contains more than 4,000 catalogued boxes filled to the brim with historic maps, photographs and newspapers dating back to establishment of the French protectorate over Cambodia in 1863.
Jean-Michel Filippi, a Corsican linguist who teaches and conducts research in Phnom Penh, said that the Khmer Rouge – contrary to popular perception – destroyed few books or documents, and also preserved the contents of the National Library.
As a result, the NAC remains a valuable resource for those conducting research into modern Cambodian history.
“No matter what you want to find about Cambodia’s history, you can find it at the National Archives,” says Filippi, who has used the NAC for his research into the history of Phnom Penh and Kampot province.
The majority of the documents – around 80 percent – are written in French, and the archives are mostly visited by researchers from Japan or France, writing theses on one of the lesser-known aspects of Cambodia’s colonial history.
But the collection also includes a trove of records from then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of the 1950s and 1960s, the Pol Pot regime and other official journals relating to Indochina and Cambodia.
Researchers can also browse the records of the August 1979 genocide trial conducted against Pol Pot and former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary.
On the second floor of the NAC, a yellowing pencil portrait of its founder, Frenchman Paul Boudet, hangs from the wall.
Boudet, a one-time assistant to the governor general of Indochina, opened the National Archives in 1926, as a repository for the large volume of documents then being churned out by the colonial bureaucracy.
“Over the years of their protectorate, the French created many administrative documents, and they had no place to keep them,” Ky Lim says.
“So Paul Boudet came up with the idea of creating the National Archives: one in Hanoi, one in Saigon, one in Vientiane and one in Phnom Penh.”
Though the archives have managed to survive decades of war and upheaval, they today face more mundane – but no less threatening – challenges.
The NAC, which is under the Council of Ministers, does not have its own budget, and the 17 staff employed by the NAC are constantly scrimping funds to maintain the collections.
“Whenever we need money, we have to ask for it. But we try to work closely with NGOs and the UNESCO, and besides them, some of the embassies and private donors are also a big help,” Ky Lim says.
Finances are not the only the obstacle the NAC faces: preserving century-old documents in Cambodia’s hot and humid climate would be a major challenge for any institution – no matter how well resourced.
From a dusty cardboard box, Ky Lim removes a small booklet, its pages torn at the edges, but otherwise well-preserved – a copy of a colonial law on gambling, dated 1891.
“We have to use special paper imported from Japan to make the already-existing paper thicker. This process takes a very long time and is very expensive,” she says.
One small piece of the archival paper costs around US$3 – a significant sum given the NAC’s tight resources.
NAC preservationists also receive special training. Before beginning work, they attend six-month training programmes either in Malaysia or the United States, where they are taught how to treat old documents and other aspects of managing the archives.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, says the National Archives are a “true treasure”, but worries about the lack of young Cambodian faces among those conducting research in the institution.
“Young Cambodians don’t know how to do research. No one teaches them research in school, although it is something you would have to learn at a very young age,” he says.
“So the Archives are isolated in a way and don’t reach their real target group. If the young generation doesn’t know how to do research, the documents in the NAC are just dead pieces of paper.”
In any event, the archives remain open to all, and Youk Chhang says that if more young Cambodians learn to immerse themselves in its wide range of historical documents, it could help them better grasp their country’s past.
“If they understand the past”, he adds, “it can help them … get a better perspective on their future.”