Cambodia bid farewell to a giant of Southeast Asian scholarship on Thursday with the death of the American historian Michael Vickery in Battambang, where his funeral ends today. He was 86.
Colleagues, friends and family remembered him for his fierce intellect, unapologetic devotion to the truth, encyclopaedic memory and mastery of over a dozen languages, many of which – it was said – he picked up through various romances.
“On the pillow,” as Vickery’s close friend Olivier de Bernon put it. De Bernon, a professor at the French School of the Far East, recalled Vickery as a prodigious debater who would entertain lively wine-fuelled conversations.
“He had a unique talent for polemics,” he said.
Born on April 1, 1931, in Billings, Montana, Vickery came from modest means, but his family’s progressive values shaped Vickery’s scholarship, which is often viewed as falling into Marxist schools of thought – although, de Bernon noted, “he was not a communist”.
Vickery taught English, lectured and studied around the world, but much of his life was spent in Thailand and Cambodia. Starting from 1960 to 1964 as an English teacher at the Lycée de Kampong Thom, he would count among his students Kaing Guek Eav, later known as Duch, the infamous S-21 prison director. After doctoral studies at Yale University in 1977, he established himself as an expert on Cambodia and the region. His dissertation, de Bernon said, was remarkable as a rigorous analytical comparison of the Thai and Cambodian Royal Chronicles.
Pre-Angkorian history drew Vickery’s focus, culminating in the book Society, Economics, and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia. When he died, Vickery was writing a companion book on Angkorian Cambodia. Noting Vickery was a scholar of Cambodian history up through the present, de Bernon said “the spectrum of his interests was very unique”, adding that Vickery could read ancient texts “like reading a newspaper”.
His principal scholarly contribution, de Bernon said, was that he was the first to have methodically described the social structures of ancient Cambodia.
But Vickery “was blunt”, de Bernon recalled.
Indeed, in frequent editorials in The Post he took aim at politicians, scholars, journalists and the paper itself. In one 2001 letter, he labelled an article “the filthiest piece of pseudo-journalistic hack work and character assassination I have seen in years”, and accused then-owner Michael Hayes of selling his soul.
Among those he sparred with was fellow historian David Chandler, who yesterday said “I miss him, regardless of his hostility to my work. Very few scholars of Cambodia have bequeathed work of such a consistently high value . . . His death leaves an enormous gap in my life and in the lives of many others.”
Cambodian archaeologist Chin Chanratana recalled Vickery as among his favourite professors, noting a firm but compassionate approach towards students. “I loved him from the bottom of my heart,” he said, noting that it was sad Vickery died in relative poverty.
At home, his foster daughter Amema “Mimi” Saeju, 36, recalled a warm animal-lover who raised her with his later-life partner Otome Klein, 87, a Dutch anthropologist.
“When it comes to work it was his responsibility to be extreme sometimes . . . [but] in the house he was quite a reasonable person,” she said. But above all she recalled his openness and candour about sex and relationships. “He loved to talk about women,” she said with a laugh.
Later, Vickery consulted with the late Ieng Sary’s defence at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Ieng Sary defender Michael Karnavas, a friend for 22 years, said in an email that Vickery was “a fierce critic of sloppy critical analysis . . . a great conversationalist with a bent for provoking with off-colour and politically incorrect remarks. Yet he was a gentle and generous soul, always ready to lend an ear and share his encyclopaedic knowledge.”
“Michael was quirky and cantankerous. He could drive you crazy with his politics,” he said.
Most relevant to the trials was Vickery’s rejection of what he called the “Standard Total View”: the body of widely accepted – and, in his view, insufficiently rigorous – scholarship that suggested the Khmer Rouge was a monolithic entity. Vickery set a high bar for analysing historical facts, and challenged the popular version of Khmer Rouge history on such issues as death totals, sexual violence and how fragmented the regime was.
In all, Karnavas noted, “Michael Vickery was a Cambodian institution, an old hand, and to many, a legend.”
But for many, Vickery’s convictions that he would work only to sustain himself, his disdain for materialism and his refusal to be tenured at a university in order to maintain the independence of his voice ultimately caught up to him. He grew reliant upon the charity of his friends and relatives for support.
In his final months, Vickery lived with his brother-in-law, Meas Savuth, 72, who said that his dying wish was to have a Cambodian funeral. “He wanted to die in Cambodia,” he said, noting that many former students travelled from afar to pay their respects over the weekend.
Vickery died of a heart attack after a long period of illness at 11am on June 29. He is survived by his adoptive daughter Mimi, his partner Otome Klein, his in-laws and his ex-wife Angina Vickery, and their daughter Angelina.