This letter is in response to the article written by Emily Wight titled “The invisible Cambodians who went uncredited for the Angkor excavation” published last Friday.
In the article, the writer quoted University of Hawaii PhD candidate Heng Piphal, who stated “you’re always seeing Cambodians, either coolies, paid labourers or assistants to the conservators, but most of their names have never been mentioned”.
What Heng Piphal said is absolutely correct. For decades, Cambodians have played very important roles and greatly contributed to the research done by foreigners in Cambodia. Yet, they are seldom remembered or credited in any way.
Foreigners have often taken advantage of the politics of Cambodia and of Cambodians, viewing Cambodians as no more than simple labourers only interested in money, uneducated, and unworthy of credit.
The fact is that most of the archaeological work in Cambodia was not solely done by foreigners. Actually, local Cambodians contributed significantly to all research. France once ruled over Cambodia and studied Cambodian history and archaeology extensively.
Even considering the special relationship between France and Cambodia and the length and extent of the archaeological work, the French ignored Cambodian participation.
There are numerous cases which illustrate how the French ignored the participation of local Cambodians while they were colonising Cambodia.
Let’s highlight one of the cases – Angkor Wat temple. Numerous publications indicate that Angkor Wat was discovered by the explorer Henri Mouhot. This claim is wrong.
Angkor Wat had never been abandoned by Cambodians. Cambodians had always lived adjacent to the temple and attached themselves to it.
Angkor Wat temple had always been part of their daily life. Historical evidence shows that Cambodians continued to conduct religious ceremonies there after the capital city of Cambodia was moved from Angkor in the 15th century.
The administration was moved, but the hearts of the Cambodian people and their culture was not and has never been removed. Local Cambodians have always worshiped at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, thus preserving their way of life as well as the temples themselves.
Moreover, before Henri Mouhot visited Angkor Wat, other foreign explorers also visited the temple because Angkor Wat had been the religious center not only for Cambodians, but for the world.
History shows that several foreign explorers visited Cambodia. Zhou Daguon visited Angkor in the 13th century, followed by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Burmese and the Japanese in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It was not unusual for a marvelous building such as Angkor Wat to receive foreign visits, but none of these visitors ever claimed to have discovered it. It is odd then that Henri Mouhot, unlike those previous visitors, overcome by his ego and hubris, claimed that he had discovered something which was in fact never lost.
The fact that thousands of Cambodians never received credit for helping in the scientific archeological work done in our country illustrates one of the troubling issues of colonisation.
The French had more power than we had, said and did whatever they wanted, and all too often there was no reply or rebuttal from Cambodians. But now, Cambodia has its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We have our own team of archaeologists and researchers who were trained locally by Cambodians and also trained abroad. In several cases in the last few decades, significant research and archaeological work has been done by Cambodians.
However, one thing we must note is that France is still influencing Cambodian culture and the property of Cambodian ancestors.
The International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC-Angkor) seems to have higher authority and control in the Angkor area than the owner of the cultural property – Cambodians.
That authority and control over Cambodians seems to be permanent. If Cambodians want to develop or conduct extensive research in the Angkor Area, their own home, they must secure permission from the foreigner-led ICC Angkor first.
Cambodia does not have completely independent authority over its own property. Cambodians should have complete access to research and conduct archaeological work on their own property independently. The APSARA Authority has plenty of accredited experts in archaeology, anthropology, history and other areas.
It would be fair to say that no other institution knows more about the Angkor area than the APSARA Authority.
Therefore, the authority should assume a more active role and greater authority over what is in fact Cambodian property without dependence on foreigners. The Royal Academy of Cambodia also has experts to conduct archeological and historical research in the country which they have already begun to do.
By expanding the authority and activities of these two organisations, Cambodians can reclaim their proper place in the scientific study and understanding of our history and in so doing recognise the contributions of our fellow Cambodians to such endeavours in our past.
Faculty of Archaeology,
graduated from Royal University of Fine Arts