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Cambodia's History on Trial

Cambodia's History on Trial

Paris - In a remote corner of the Old Sorbonne, in a small room where very old dusty

books stand on carved wooden shelves, around 40 scholars gathered from the four corners

of the world to discuss "History of the Khmer Land".

The title had been chosen by the convenor of this symposium, Prof. Claude Jacques,

to include and cover the entire area where Khmers have been living, and of which

present Cambodia is a part. This area covers the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam,

a part of southern Laos, eastern Thailand and perhaps even part of southern Thailand.

After the ritual welcome speeches, discussion was opened by an elderly member of

Japan's Academy, Tatsuro Yamamoto, with a "Note of the Chinese historical sources

regarding Funan".

Funan, it should be reminded, is the earliest known kingdom in Southern Indochina.

It was visited in the middle of the third century AD by Chinese envoys. Some echoes

of their report have been found in the Chinese records. Following the argument of

his colleague Sugimoto, Prof. Yamamoto said that the visit must have taken place

in 229 AD, at a time when Funan was powerful enough to send ambassadors to India

(at Peshawar) and to China.

Mr Tatsuo Hoshino took the floor and, using the same sources, argued that texts should

be read literally: Funan, says the Chinese text, lies 300 li west of Lin yi (Northern

Champa, on the Vietnamese coast). Mr Hoshino then concluded that Funan, usually believed

to be in the Mekong Delta, should be located somewhere between the Chao Phraya River

and the Korat Plateau, for instance at Si Thep. As later sources are more precise

in locating Funan in the South of the Peninsula, he described the kingdom as a "migratory


This, I believe, came as a painful surprise for most participants. It appeared a

wild suggestion, abruptly crushing established knowledge. But a few minutes later

Yolaine Escande touched on the general subject of early Chinese sources. She pointed

out that we have only fragments of original writings, subsumed or copied in later

encyclopedic literature and she argued against a literal interpretation. The scribes,

she said, have used pieces, sometimes written several centuries back, without the

care of present day scientists. She said a critique of the sources should teach us

how to use them.

As a consequence of this reasonable statement, Funan, in the mind of the participants,

quietly returned to its traditional location, somewhere in Southern Cambodia or Western

Cochinchina. Mr Hoshino had not won the day.

Prof. Yoshiaki Ishizawa of Sophia University gave a talk about a Japanese samurai,

Morimoto Ukondayu, who visited Angkor and left an ink inscription on January 30,

1632. He also offered four Buddha statues. Then he somehow disappears from later

records. Prof. Ishizawa speculates that after the closure of Japan three years later,

it became dangerous to claim to have traveled overseas. Ukondayu had to abscond.

Then Mrs Uraisi Varasarin of Silpakorn University, Bangkok, applied a detective mind

to a legend still told in villages of eastern Thailand, in regions which have long

been ruled by Khmer kings. She tried to demonstrate that a fifth century king by

the name of Citrasena is the same as a prince Pacitra known in the local fairy tales.

Even if no proof can be given, this was cleverly argued. Folk memory is capricious

but real men are sometimes transformed into legendary heroes. Why not this one?

The next day session was opened by François Bizot, a member of the École

française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), an institution famous for its study

of Indochinese history. Mr. Bizot is the author of five important books on Khmer

Buddhism. He had been a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge during the war and through his

intimate knowledge of things Khmer, he got himself released.

He said that, for a long time, it was difficult to understand the difference between

Buddhism as it was taught - according to the renovated tenet which spread out

from Ceylon in the 12-13th century and now predominates in Burma, Thailand, Laos

and Cambodia - and the local ritual practices. Nobody knew how to handle discrepancies.

In order to grasp the problem, one had to discover by what ways Buddhism is alive,

in a practical way, inside monasteries.

To better visualize the question, Bizot drew three concentric circles. The central

one, he said, is the canonic texts, written in Pali, incorporated in what is called

the Three Baskets (Tripitaka). This, nobody would touch or discuss. This is the unmovable

core of the belief. Then an intermediary circle is what he calls the stump. The Khmers

call it rih, the root. This concerns the signs of identification of the monks, aspects

of ritual, which are inherited from the past monastic communities, although it does

not belong to the canonic law.

It provides proof that the monk really belongs to the community, inside the rules

of the discipline. The validation of acts by which the monk leaves the world and

enters the community pertains to this "stump". One may find regional variations,

as one can see from the slightly different robes worn by monks in different countries.

The last circle he calls the "line of studies", or schools. Various bodies

of literature, written in local languages, provide vehicles for teachers' influences

concerning the way they understand and interpret the doctrine. Many currents of thought

may be observed. This leaves room for individual variations which are acceptable

only if the first and second circles are respected.

The details of life in monasteries, like the organization of the community, the monks'

robe, the ritual boundary stones around the pagodas, the way to write and pronounce

Pali, all point to an origin in the ancient Mon communities, flourishing before Angkor

in the Menam plain, long before the Ceylonese reform and the coming of the Thais.

He then gave a number of facts verifying this assertion, pertaining to the costume

and the pronunciation of Pali ritual formulas. The original Mons have almost disappeared

from Thailand, massively assimilated into Thai society, but it is fascinating to

see that oral transmission of rites has maintained up to this day their relation

with the sacred world. Khmers have been, in this domain as in many others, good conservators

of cultural elements, at least more than most of their neighbors.

Mr Olivier de Bernon is another member of the EFEO and is now based in Phnom Penh.

He runs a small office, inside the Royal Palace where a team collects palm leaf manuscripts,

recording them in a computerized system. After briefly reporting on this ongoing

work, he analyzed a text, well known by all Cambodians, the Put Tomnyey, the so-called

Buddha's Prediction. In time of crisis, Khmers like to remember that impending disasters

have been announced, including floods of blood. Does it make the current events of

Koh Thlok, as their country is called in old writings, more palatable?

Claude Jacques, a Sanskritist and specialist of inscriptions, expressed his doubts

on the way Cambodia's history is now written. Angkor has fascinated scholars and

has smashed the rest of history, he said. What is a good king, for a historian, he

asked? A king who built a temple. But many temples have disappeared. With what they

had, historians have constructed a coherent, logical history. But he suspects it

is too nice to be true.

He told us that the last time he saw George Cœdès, the master editor and translator

of the Khmer stone inscriptions, the old scholar told him: "Everything I did

needs to be redone. It is up to you now".

This remarkable modesty is matched by Jacques who added that nobody could tackle

such a gigantic enterprise but that some corrections could at least be brought. So

he suggests reading again the written sources, in order to understand the political

struggles which are hidden behind the royal proclamations.

Was for instance Jayavarman II in a powerful position when he invented the ceremony

of making the king an equivalent of the gods (devaraja  - divine kingship) or

was he a refugee in his fortress capital, on the Phnom Kulen, trying desperately

to create an advantage over his enemies, arrayed against him? Prof. Jacques notes

no more than a third of Angkorian kings were sons of kings. It thus points to a lot

of conflict and instability which has yet to be taken into account in the way we

write history.

Georges Condominas, the living ancestor of all French south east Asian anthropologists,

then spoke of Bernard-Philippe Groslier, the last head of the Angkor Conservation,

who left Siem Reap in 1972, after he had been stabbed by a young Khmer. Groslier

had been born and raised in Siem Reap where his father was already the custodian

of the monuments. Trained as a historian and an archaeologist, he also was a distinguished


This was made more natural, explained Condominas, whose ancestry is both French and

Vietnamese, by the fact that Groslier participated in both cultures, Western and

Khmer. This can be felt in reading Groslier's many writings which are up to now the

best and the most comprehensive statements on Angkorian civilization.

Elizabeth Moore from the University of London is no new-comer in the realm of Khmer

archaeology, although she concentrated, until recently, her research on the Korat

plateau in eastern Thailand. There, working on old aerial photographs, she identified

about a hundred prehistoric villages on low mounds, surrounded by moats and earthworks.

Many of these villages date from bronze and early iron periods, sometimes occupied

between 1500 BC and AD 1500. In 1989 she excavated one of them, Ban Takhong, in Buriram

province, adding quite a bit to the growing knowledge we have of the direct ancestors

of the present-day Khmers.

Interestingly, she said in the résumé of her intervention that "the

finds raised questions about the utility of labels such as Mon, Khmer for the moated -

and non-moated - prehistoric mounds of this region". Political, national

and even linguistic categories we now use to describe people may be entirely irrelevant

if we go back into a past when none of these power structures existed.

Working for the UNESCO preparatory study of the Angkor region, Mrs Moore used the

same technique, of which she gave several graphic examples, to identify 68 habitation

mounds in the vicinity of the Angkorian vanished cities. These moats were used as

water tanks and allowed increasing concentrations of population.

The research on the prehistoric settlements of the northern part of the Khmer lands

is all the more important as it is the area where water control techniques were gradually

established and improved, leading to the Angkorian accomplishments. When the kings

left the Angkor region (around 1431) they settled in the Mekong plain where flatness

precludes sophisticated water control. There was a drop in resources, power, prestige

and so forth. Surawadee Ittaratana then brought some information on how SPOT satellite

photographs may be interpreted in support of archaeological research.

Michael Vickery, who teaches in Penang University, gave most of his paper on Pre-Angkor

inscriptions. For several years he has been arguing that historians should look first

at the documents of the period they want to study and help themselves only later

with the secondary sources, like late accounts by foreign travelers.

In the case of early Indochina history, the reverse was done. The histories of Funan,

Chenla, Champa were first written by Sinologists who tried to put together information

buried in old Chinese works. Vickery, logically, insists on working first with early

Khmer inscriptions. He said if Sanskrit inscriptions are usually of a religious character,

Khmer ones are administrative statements and can provide, if carefully analyzed,

a wealth of information on the political systems which prevailed in Cambodia before

and during Angkor.

It is impossible here to enter into details, if only because there may be no more

than 10 or 20 people in the world who have really mastered the old Khmer language.

He showed evidence of evolution in the status of local rulers and suggested dynastic

changes in Angkor may have been related to deep social changes, with the possible

replacement of an entire ruling aristocracy by another one.

This paper is only a small part of on-going research but one thing is sure: there

is still much room for research, and our understanding of ancient history should

be considered still rather provisional.

The subject then turned to art history. A Thai archaeologist from Silpakorn University

discussed a feature of some Angkorian temples called the "Khleang style".

A French architect, Bruno Bruguier, gave a lecture on the "superstructures"

(roofing) of the early Khmer temples and their evolution. A very technical affair.

Then, Mr Lan Sunnary, who until 1972 worked at the Angkor Conservation, presented

a recently found statue of Vishnu, unearthed in Aug. 1992 at Sre Ampil, 18 km south-east

from Phnom Penh, during works on a water project. It is now in the National Museum.

Speaking from a study of photographs, Mr Sunnary gave a detailed description from

which he concluded without hesitating that it was dated from the first half of the

12th century. Some people in the audience, who had seen this Vishnu, perhaps struck

by its fresh aspect, raised the question if its authenticity. Others who had seen

it too vouched for it.

"Authentic provincial style," said Mr Le Bonheur of the Musée

Guimet. I am not sure if the quarrel has been extinguished.

An archaeology student, Miss Sharon Alvares, then presented analysis of the images

carved on the delicious temple of Banteay Srei, the "fortress of women".

She has remarked that the eastern side depicts scenes from the Ramayana and the western

side scenes from the Mahabharata. But both show fights of which the goal is royal

power. This may not be unrelated to further episodes of Khmer history. The artist

who carved the delicate rosy stones knew the epics very well, said Miss Alvares.

Finally Mr René Dumont, an architect who worked for many years in Angkor and

has taught at the Fine Arts school in Phnom Penh in the olden days, gave a lecture

in two parts. He first reminded the audience of the great Western books dealing with

the proportions in art, including the Golden Number, and he then presented a number

of drawings.

They show that a Khmer temple may be planned and drawn on the floor by starting from

a single measure, the width of the entrance door, by the simple use of a stake and

a line. Geometrical figures, are thus generated by repeating some very simple operations

(circles, straight lines). Mr Dumont, who draws compulsively, estimates he has thus

rediscovered the simple techniques by which the Khmer specialists obtained their

very elaborated but symmetrical monuments.

Time for the demonstration was a bit short, but since I have benefited in other occasions

of Mr Dumont's lessons, I must say I find them very convincing.

Marielle Santoni, a French archaeologist, told of her team's work at Wat Phu, in

southern Laos, 30km south of Pakse. There a phalloid-shaped mountain has been considered

as a linga and venerated as such since at least the fifth century of our era. A beautiful

11th century Khmer temple sits at the foot of the mountain.

Less known are the remains of a big town (2.8 x 1.8km) on the Mekong riverside, probably

the capital of an important kingdom established there before Angkor. Because of development

projects, the site is threatened and might soon be destroyed. Emergency diggings

are called for.

Ms Santoni explained and showed slides of the work done to dig out the basis of an

old brick tower temple. The Wat Phu area obviously is one the keys in the history

of early Khmers.

The meeting then reconvened at UNESCO, where those responsible for the Angkor project

gave a progress report on the mysterious thing called ZEMP, which stands for "Zoning

and Environmental Management Plan for Angkor".

"Recently," said Mr Richard Engelhardt, the UNESCO Mission head in Phnom

Penh, "we visited a number of places of interest which had been so far out of

reach. At most of them, we found that diggings had taken place, done by people using

metal detectors. They were looking for bronze".

In the process, they destroy the layers of soil deposited by past generations. These

layers are like the pages of a book telling the past. The archaeologists try to decipher

these pages when they are not destroyed by silly treasure-hunters.

Archaeologists are divided between those who say digging should be postponed until

full security is restored and those who say that unauthorized diggings are carried

out anyway and professionals should start work before it is too late.

It appears UNESCO did a lot of brainwork to prepare a framework for future research

and conservation, and also to organize tourist exploitation of the temples. But the

question of what authority will implement it, and how, remained unanswered in everybody's


After this, Mr Khin Sok delivered a learned paper on how the Khmer language indicates

time. But the question is: is it fully legitimate to apply to non-European languages

grammatical concepts which have been elaborated centuries ago to describe Latin and

other European languages?

He was followed by two of the best representatives of this very small crowd of those

who have an expert knowledge of the Mon-Khmer family of languages. Few people realize

that more than one hundred of these related languages are still spoken in Cambodia,

Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma. Some are spoken in very small areas,

sometimes just a cluster of hill villages, but they all add to our understanding

of this very old family of languages.

Mr Gérard Diffloth, who teaches at Cornell University, talked about the Khmer

words borrowed by neighboring languages. He remarked, for instance, that the Thai

language borrowed mainly from the written, official language of the Angkorian period,

and later, in the realm of power. A part of the Siamese political elite was certainly

bilingual and very mixed with the Khmer elite. But other situations existed, as is

shown by the fact that many Thai dialects borrowed from Khmer dialects.

He spoke of Kuy, a language spoken in northern Cambodia, but also in Laos and in

the "Khmer-speaking" areas of eastern Thailand. Kuys are known to be the

best iron workers in the Cambodian tradition. Their language belongs, said Mr Diffloth,

to the Katuic branch. Katu is a language still spoken in Central Vietnam. And, judging

from borrowings and phonetic evolution, the Khmer branch and the Katuic branch started

to split about 4,000 years ago. It was just a quick glance at a wealth of historical

evidence. For events which have left no contemporary record, linguistics is able

to provide unique indications.

Mr Michel Ferlus studied the several ways of spelling the word kamratan in old inscriptions.

This is an important word meaning "lord, master" in old Khmer. He said

that, although the word is typically Khmer, the way it was written at some periods

betrays a Mon pronunciation. This leads him to hypothesize that the pre-Angkorian

elite, or at least a part of it, was of Mon extraction. Curiously he did not raise

the possibility of different dialects existing in early Khmer which could explain

local ways of spelling words.

Christian Bauer from Hamburg is a Mon specialist. He said there was a debate on the

chronology of the evolution of the Khmer language. He gave a technical presentation,

insisting that not only phonology but grammatical order should be taken into account

to identify language periods.

These periods allow to date, more or less, the time of word borrowings by a language

from another. He also said they are two sorts of changes, one from below, and one

from above, the latter probably reflecting some kind of political change. In the

case of Thai and Middle Khmer, he said the change came from above and did not alter

significantly the structure of the language. This could indicate that three or four

centuries ago, there was a rather high degree of mutual penetration between Thai

and Khmer elite groups.

Attention then turned to the way children were treated during Khmer Rouge rule, by

anthropologist Marie Martin. She described briefly traditional education as a background,

and the way children were put together in work brigades.

"Manipulated by the [KR] leaders," she said, "children became the

tools of social destabilization." But the consequences on the children themselves

have been heavy. Not all the social and psychological disturbances experienced by

those who were children at that period have been cured by the passing of time.

Mr Nobuo Endo of Sophia University, Tokyo, described an ambitious theoretical approach

for the conservation of monuments linked to socio-cultural development. The "new

methodology" is based on an engineering and planning approach. It could be well

adapted to an expanding Japanese firm, but applying "models" to the Khmer

reality may be, I am afraid, a cause for some disappointment.

Pierre Lamant, who teaches Cambodia's history in Paris, recalled old European historians

complaining about the lack or reliability of ancient Khmer sources, particularly

the royal chronicles. But, he asked rhetorically, are the old European sources much

better? And he reviewed a quantity of early texts on Cambodia, mostly written by

missionaries, from which he extracted funny, bizarre or plainly stupid statements.

But these authors are quite minor and rarely used.

In the meantime, he had well demonstrated that writing silly and ignorant comments

on Cambodia has a tradition and is not the monopoly of the modern media.

He was followed by Henri Locard, a former teacher in Cambodia, who has collected

more than 100 Khmer Rouge mottoes and slogans. He compared a number of them with

Maoist slogans of the Cultural Revolution period in China. This would have been an

interesting exercise (although Khmer slogans do not appear to have been translated

from Chinese) if Mr Locard had not presented the Khmer Rouge leaders as pure and

simple slaves of the Chinese masters.

This theory is known to be accepted by some Cambodian circles but it nevertheless

runs contrary to all the available evidence. Unfortunate as it is, Khmer Rouge policies

were designed by Khmers who certainly did not want to just copy the Chinese, whom

they never entirely trusted anyway.

Alain Forest, a known historian, presented a paper entitled "Towards a religious

history of Cambodia". He made a strong point arguing that the analysis of religious

evolution could provide a pattern to understand Khmer history, as well founded as

political analysis. After all, Khmers have not always been Buddhists and stratas

of former religious experiences piled up during the past and can be traced up to


Maurice Eisenbruch has for many years now been following and observing kru Khmer,

the traditional healers who, more than Western medicine, is the first recourse of

any Cambodian who feels sick, or threatened by some ghost.

These people are immensely helpful to the Khmer community. Mr Eisenbruch gave

a quite detailed description of the three worlds surrounding, like a layered sphere,

every individual, in the Khmer view: above, the world of gods; in the middle the

human world; and the demons below.

Sickness may come from any of these three worlds and only the kru may identify its

source and know how to cure it. That is why, says the author of this very learned

communication, the kru does not really distinguish between the individual and surrounding

society. All these worlds actively relate to each other.

Then anthropology freely mixed with history. Jacques Népote said most historical

presentations of Cambodia are marred with misunderstanding and faulty reading of

the sources. He said the two backbones are kinship and kingship, of which no complete

analysis has been so far accepted.

Society at large has a matrilineal orthodoxy but royal kinship is patrilineal. Khmer

society, said Népote, is made of two symmetrical halves and divided into large

matrilineal clans, more or less equivalent to territorial units known as phum or

srok, constantly struggling against each other.

I then took the floor to call for a reappraisal of the traditional political system

in Cambodia. I called into question the naming of old polities by the word of "State".

Local chiefs, I argued, were autonomous rulers, even when one or several of them

took a title we roughly translate as "king". But these kings seldom had

real powers outside their own realm.

The idea of a "galactic system", applied to Siamese history by S. Tambiah,

could well be extended to Cambodia. This would lead towards a reinterpretation of

Angkor, not as a unified empire, but as a constellation of micro states. We may not

trust too much the self glorifying inscriptions of the kings. But the consequence

of not seeing Angkor as a powerful unified empire would be to reject the idea as


The temples are testimonies from a particular political and religious type of legitimation

of the elite, but the rules of politics may have remained quite the same before and

after Angkor. And they forbade the creation of a stable bureaucratic state.

During the dinner, after these labors and over some Tsingtao beers, it was decided

to establish an international association for historical research on the Khmer land.

It was the general hope that Cambodian historians will gradually regain their own

part in this international concert.


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