As the author of one of the articles Helen Grant-Ross refers to in her letter
'Hideous' Cathedral (PPPost 14/07), I think this needs a response. Before I
continue though, I must defend the Post. It was me that was responsible for
having indicated (in good faith) that all four photographs related to the
cathedral, when evidently one of the photographs of the interior was incorrect -
However, despite Helen Grant-Ross' welcome addition of some
factual information, such as the name of the cathedral's architect (as well as
pointing out the guilty photograph!), much of her letter seems motivated by
academic and architectural snobbery. In fact her entire letter seems aimed at
concocting a historic justification for the destruction of a building she didn't
like. This has been compounded both by prejudice towards, and ignorance of, the
One early statement in her letter particularly
intrigues me: that the Khmer Rouge destroyed the former French embassy, and that
it was "strange" that neither Lachlan Hastings nor I mentioned it. There was
certainly nothing strange about not mentioning it for the simple reason the
Khmer Rouge did not destroy it.
In fact, the French did. With the
re-establishment of diplomatic relations, the former embassy building was no
longer considered suitable and a modern embassy was built in its place. An
eyewitness account of the building's survival is readily available. In December
1978, Elizabeth Becker, then a journalist with The Washington Post, visited
Phnom Penh. In her book When the War was Over, she notes that the former French
Embassy "was used as a dormitory. ... black pajamas were hanging out to dry on
the balconies" (Becker, 1998, 2nd edition, p. 405).
As Bora Touch, a
Khmer lawyer and writer, recently confided to me, "If the Khmer Rouge were going
to destroy any embassy, it would have been the American one." In fact, with the
exception of the cathedral and the churches, it would appear the Khmer Rouge
were totally indifferent to either the destruction or construction of any
buildings of symbolic importance.
There may, of course, have been more
than one justification for the destruction of the cathedral, but I doubt it had
anything to do with it being a "pretentious, academic, neo-Gothic, Romanesque
I just don't see the Khmer Rouge as being that
sensitive. Taking into account their attitude towards Buddhism, arguing that the
cathedral's location - opposite Wat Phnom - was a consideration for them is
surely treading on shaky ground. The position was indeed insensitive to
Buddhism, but I don't recall having read in any pre-1975 literature a desire to
see it pulled down.
And neither can I support the fact that it was "part of
their campaign to obliterate all religious activity from the face of Cambodia,"
otherwise the Khmer Rouge would surely have destroyed "the beautiful small 'St.
Michels' church in Sihanoukville," whose survival Helen Grant-Ross proudly
recounts in her next paragraph.
In any case, my comments on the
systematic destruction of the church were clearly aimed at Phnom Penh and not
the rest of Cambodia, as indicated by the title of the article.
regards to the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (SRN), it is true: it did promulgate
religious tolerance, but this was nothing new. With a few exceptions, Cambodia
has always displayed a benign acceptance of other religions. The tolerance of
the SRN was somewhat more limited when it came to opposition political parties
such as the Democrats and the Pracheachon, or later, for that matter, to the
Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Indeed, the political instability of the
country from 1947 to 1955, which Helen Grant-Ross appears unaware of, was
largely the motivation for the SRN's foundation.
This situation was
further hampered by rural insecurity initiated firstly by the Khmer Issarak and
later, until the signing of the Geneva accords in 1954, by the Viet Minh. After
1955, political dissent was forced underground, where it festered due to the
failure to provide adequate democratic institutions, the Cold War and the
regional growth of communism.
But don't take my word for it, a quick
perusal of the works by those far more qualified than myself, such as David
Chandler, Michael Vickery, Milton Osborne or Ben Kiernan, should be convincing
Anyway, getting back to that "pompous Cathedral," the reason for
its construction was part of a growing awareness by the Catholic Church that
while the future of French political authority appeared doomed in Cambodia,
there was no reason for Catholicism to follow the same path. Right or wrong, and
in retrospect it probably was wrong, the Church required a statement of
permanency, and the construction of the cathedral was part of that
The degree to which this was an affront to Khmer religious
sensibilities is still, ironically, the debate and domain of mainly Western, not
Khmer, scholars. Nevertheless, I doubt that few Khmers lament its loss and fewer
still are aware that it even existed; it was this last fact that provided the
motivation for my article.
Ultimately though, it is not a question of
whether a cathedral is constructed correctly upon a divined geographical axis or
whether a religious building is ugly. After all, few of us can declare with any
conviction that we appreciate the architectural merit of a Chinese temple, a
Buddhist wat, an Islamic mosque or even a Catholic church, equally. The argument
is not one of taste.
What is at issue here is the destruction of places
of worship for quasi-political and racist motives. No matter what the size of
the community it serves, it is an act which all of us, I thought, would find
equally abhorrent. Clearly, I was wrong.
(...and no, I'm
not a Catholic!)