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Cathedral defense

Cathedral defense

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 -

my apologies.

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

period discussed.

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

pastiche building."

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.

Paul Reeve

(...and no, I'm

not a Catholic!)


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