Sorn Samnang, 64, started his life as a historian with just four months of teachers’ training at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (later renamed the Royal University of Phnom Penh). Today, he is among Cambodia’s most prominent academics, having organised the First International Conference on Khmer Studies in 1996, leading the Royal Cambodia Academy from 1999 till 2009 and representing Cambodia at ASEAN summits as an ‘eminent person’. In his retirement, he returned to his love of history by starting the Cambodian Historian Association last month, a society of professional historians who aim to promote historical inquiry in the Kingdom. He spoke to Bennett Murray about his early days as a historian and his hope for the future of Cambodian historiography.
When did you become a historian?
I was a student-teacher of history and geography for post-secondary education in 1980, the first batch of teachers from when the teachers college reopened after the Pol Pot regime, taught by the few teachers who had survived. But it was only four months of training. It was a response of the urgent needs of Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. For history and geography, there were only four graduates for all of Cambodia, including myself. I thought that I could provide my contribution, to help rebuild Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge.
How did you end up studying history just one year after the fall of the Khmer Rouge?
Before 1975, I was a student at what is today called the Royal University of Law and Economics. When Pol Pot came to power, I was evicted from Phnom Penh and sent to Battambang, where I was a slave. I was with some of my brothers and sisters, and some of them died.
When I started at the teachers college, because of my specialty in law, I had a choice between history and political morality. I preferred law before, but the Pol Pot regime changed some of my initial ideas, and I decided that I didn’t want to get involved in politics. So I chose history. After that, I had no time for law anymore.
What job opportunities were available to you in the 1980s?
I taught history at the teachers’ training college from 1981 to 1991, and became head of the history department. I only had a bachelor’s degree, but there was no one with a higher degree. When I went to France to get my master’s degree and PhD, there was no one to replace me, so I stayed in my role. During my absence, the day-to-day activities of the history department were run by the deputy head.
Why is history important to you?
As the American president Woodrow Wilson said: ‘A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday does not know what it is today. Nor what it is trying to do.’ This is especially true in the age of globalisation. We have our culture, our identity, and in ASEAN, for instance, we are united with nine other cultures. We must remember the past of Cambodia, so we can correctly respond to the needs of Cambodia in the context of the region and of the world.
What is a common mistake that Cambodians make about history?
Some say the French are not good, that everything the French did in Cambodia during colonisation was not good. They say that the French only exploited Cambodians through labour and heavy taxation. But the colonisation brought advantages and disadvantages to Cambodia. For instance, the French intervention in the mid-19th Century was done at a crucial moment of Cambodian history. It helped protect Cambodia from invasion by two neighbouring countries, Vietnam and Siam, when King Norodom signed the protectorate treaty with France on August 11, 1863. French authorities and scholars also brought modern education to Cambodia by creating the nation’s first polytechnic school in 1914.
What can be done to promote historical knowledge?
The French authority kept a large amount of archives, dating from the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1863. They are kept in Phnom Penh in the National Archive, but most of the archive is in French. Younger generations can’t read French, so we should translate some of the interesting documents into Khmer.
How do you think Cambodians will remember this time in history 100 years from now?
I do not know. Historians normally say that the recent history is not in the newspapers of today, but will be in the history books of the future, researched by professional historians.
But I hope that the study of history will reduce political tension. We should learn from history written by historians, because historians have scientific methodology in our presentation of the facts that is objective and not subjective.