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
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
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
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.