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Khmer at a crossroads


One man fights to keep the Khmer language alive in Thailand despite signs that those along the border would rather be speaking Thai 


Photo Supplied

Chaimongkol Chalermsukjitsri, an ethnic Khmer and Thai citizen, poses with children at a school he runs in Chruy village in Surin, Thailand. He has opened four Khmer language schools in Surin over the past two years in an attempt to save what he sees as a dying language.

Thai national Chaimongkol Chalermsukjitsri never misses a chance to speak Khmer, addressing market vendors, porters and street cleaners in the indigenous tongue of northeast Thailand’s Surin province.


An ethnic Khmer from the border region of Thailand once controlled by the Angkorian empire, 42-year-old Chaimongkol has set up four Khmer language schools in Surin over the past two years in an effort to revive what he claims is a dying language in the region.


He is currently negotiating with the largest secondary school in Surin to include Khmer language classes in their curriculum. 


But the roughly 100 enthusiastic learners at his language schools are far from representative of most Khmer in Surin, who are letting their linguistic heritage slip away, according to Chaimongkol.


Chaimongkol recently took his cause to Phnom Penh, telling education officials in the capital that Khmer has fallen out of common use in Surin, particularly among youth, and is at risk of further decline with each generation.


Chaimongkol says parents cultivate a Thai-speaking household because they believe speaking Khmer is of little value to their children’s future.


“In education and work, Khmers have struggled to find a better life. So they think getting rid of their background will help them get a job.


“There are many things that change the attitudes of young Khmers in Surin about being a Khmer speaker. Thailand is stronger than Cambodia, economically and politically. I suspect many have the impression that Cambodia is more barbaric than Thailand,” he says. 


The absence of attractive pop-culture materials in Khmer, such as music or movies, makes it even harder to motivate youth to take an interest in their ancestral language, he adds. 


Chaimongkol says apathy towards preserving Khmer also comes from education officials.


When he asked teachers at a school in Sisaket province – also on the Cambodian border – if they had considered teaching Khmer, “they had a big laugh,” he says. “That is what always happens.”


He recalls a recent conversation with a university faculty member from Bangkok who said she could spare him a grant if he taught Khmer using Thai scripts.


Chaimongkol says he saw the offer as an affront.


“Later on, she told my partner that if my school expanded then it would be like [insurgent-wracked] southern Thailand. I should be under control, this was her meaning.


“I told them that I just want to protect my language. You don’t allow me to go to your school. Okay, I don’t.”


Other than this instance, he says he hasn’t encountered any opposition from Thai authorities.


“I’ve put up signs in public places and I’ve sent numerous letters to many officials for support, and the Surin governor himself even opened up a course at the provincial hall to promote the learning of the Khmer language among the government ranks of the province,” Chaimongkol says.


If Northern Khmer is lost in Thailand, people will lose an important link with their cultural identity, argues Chaimongkol.

“Losing language means losing one’s pride,” he says.


Still, funding from Cambodians is limited and Chaimongkol says his mission is an exhausting, uphill battle.


Cambodian donor Chantara Nop says he offers financial support because Khmer Surin are his kin. They had worked hard to preserve the Khmer language, he says, but in the last 50 years those efforts have been erased. “But now Chaimongkol is the chosen one.”



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