Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment: How to slice a century of Cambodian history

Comment: How to slice a century of Cambodian history

Comment: How to slice a century of Cambodian history

As far as Cambodia is concerned, the century just ending can be fruitfully described

in several ways. An unpromising approach would be to cut the century more or less

in half, with fifty-four years labelled "the colonial era" and the rest

"Cambodia since independence."

A better approach would be to see Cambodia gradually emerging into a wider, largely

indifferent world, buffeted by a succession of foreign influences, starting with

France, continuing through a period of haphazard but brutal American interference

followed by stretches of Chinese and Vietnamese Marxism-Leninism before "ending"

in 1999 with an ex-Communist government facing the amorphous challenges of globalization.

A third way of treating Cambodia's history is to examine the conduct of its political

leaders, including the French, and to evaluate their efforts both to control the

country and to achieve some sort of "reading" of Cambodge/Cambodia/Kampuchea

that would legitimate them and also endow the country with a unique or at least a

suitable identity. Given Cambodia's permeable borders and its demographic weakness

vis a vis Thailand and Vietnam, the battle for uniqueness seems to have been lost

some time ago and the price paid by many Cambodians, to say nothing of their political

leaders, has been high. On the other hand, every twentieth century Cambodian ruler,

including the French and continuing to Hun Sen, has tried to establish a form of

government sharply different from the preceding one, putting a personal mark on his

portion of the century. In several cases, an incoming regime has sharpened the contrast

by condemning the leaders of the previous government to death.

A final approach to Cambodia's history in the 1900s, unpalatable to an historian,

is to suggest that as Cambodia emerges into Southeast Asia and as Southeast Asia

enters the world, Cambodia is losing the capacity to generate its own history. What

had been in some sense an island or a village is being submerged in a global ocean,

affected by global changes in climate, population, culture and economics over which

no one in Cambodia has any control. Seen from this perspective, as from the third,

"Cambodian" history as it has been constructed and written about in the

past may be coming to an end, as "Cambodia" loses parts of its former meaning.

Hun Sen is Cambodia's first ruler who seems indifferent to history, in the sense

that he makes no connection between his government and Cambodia's past, or between

his style of rule and the style of previous rulers. It is hard to imagine Sihanouk,

Lon Nol, or even Pol Pot telling an audience as Hun Sen did in 1998, that it was

time to "dig a hole and bury the past" even when we consider that "the

past" is for thousands of Cambodians an unbearable burden.

Although overshadowed in many peoples' minds by more recent events, the colonial

era in Cambodia filled up the first half of the century and laid the groundwork,

in many ways for the regimes that followed.

The historian Alain Forest has described colonialism in Cambodia as "painless"

(sans heurts), and it seems fair to say that the relationships forged between French

colonial administrators and the Cambodian elite were indeed benign and painless,

for the elite.

Cambodia's rural poor benefited less, but with improvements in communications, markets,

and veterinary medicine, for example, they were better off at the end of the colonial

era than they had been at the beginning. More importantly, between the 1880s and

the 1940s Cambodia was at peace. During the colonial era, its population quadrupled.

The shortcomings of French colonialism in Cambodia fade in comparison to what has

afflicted the country since 1970. Nonetheless, the French left many rough patches

in Cambodian institutional life. These can be traced in part to the fact that the

French never intended to leave. Unlike the British and the Americans but like the

Dutch and Portuguese, the French saw little point in educating Cambodians for very

long or en masse. They saw no point in preparing them for a world any wider than

French Indo-China. They also failed to establish a strong legal system or an independent

judiciary. Laws and judges, after all, might be used to question colonial rule. Cambodians

were not allowed to participate in what Paul Mus has called the monologue of colonialism.

Under the French, Cambodia was a quaint backwater, a sideshow to the main events

taking place in the components of Vietnam. Cambodians, like the Lao, were the "younger

brothers" of the Vietnamese, not only in terms of French investment and attention,

but also for the Indo-China Communist Party when it was founded in 1930.

The descendants of the builders of Angkor, in other words, were not allowed to consider

becoming free from the suffocating embraces of France and Vietnam. In this context,

the Khmer Rouge catchwords "independence" and "self mastery",

and the lengths that the Khmer Rouge went to achieve them, make melancholy sense.

The most enduring French contribution to Cambodia was probably in the construction

of early Cambodian history and in the restoration and maintenance of temples in the

Angkor complex and else where.

The French, of course, did not "discover" Angkor. Henri Mouhot was led

to the ruins in 1860 by a Cambodian guide. He found a Buddhist monastery and over

a hundred monks inside the moats of Angkor Wat. What the French accomplished by publicizing

Angkor, on the other hand, played up to the feverish need for exotic places that

affected nineteenth century France. In the process of saying how grand and mysterious

the ruins were, they bequeathed to the Cambodians a powerful but ambiguous legacy.

Independence from France came by accident for a few months in 1945, when the Japanese

imprisoned French civil servants throughout Indo-China. When France returned in force

in 1946, Vietnam was already independent under Ho Chi Minh, but Cambodia's young

king, Norodom Sihanouk (b.1922), with no forces at his disposal, welcomed the French

and for several years showed little interest in Cambodia's "struggle" for

independence, dominated in Phnom Penh by the anti-royalist Democrats and in the countryside

by the Vietnamese-controlled Communist insurrectionists. In 1952, Sihanouk launched

a crusade for independence and, when it was granted at the end of 1953, declared

himself its "father".

The 47 years that followed have had, to put it mildly, their ups and downs. It is

tempting, looking back through the smoke of the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s to see the

so-called Sihanouk era, which ran from 1955 to 1970, as a golden egg. It seemed that

way at the time to many fortunate young foreigners like myself, but even in the 1960s

there were aspects of Sihanouk's rule, as well as aspects of American policy and

the strategies followed by Thailand and by opposing factions in Vietnam that foreshadowed

some of the horrors that came later. It was fashionable for foreigners in the 1960s

either to treat Sihanouk as comical, slightly crazy and irrelevant (the prevailing

American view) or as the very best that (poor old) Cambodia could do (a view peddled

by the French).

Sihanouk himself was more complex. While allowing himself to be compared to Angkorean

kings, the Prince had few illusions, thought the worst of almost everyone, and was

a contradictory mixture, like most of us, of compulsions, affections, phobias, strengths

and faults. Intolerant of dissent, contemptuous of his advisors and enormously vain,

his affection for Cambodia's "little people" was unfeigned and set him

apart from any Cambodian ruler before or since. He worked extremely hard. His diplomatic

skills allowed Cambodia to avoid the war longer than seemed possible at the time,

but when the bets were off in 1970 the Prince readily allowed foreign forces to combine

with local ones to tear his beloved country apart.

Despite his eagerness to be considered up to date, Sihanouk struggled throughout

his time in power to keep Cambodia from being affected by anything outside its borders.

He wanted Cambodia to be an "island of peace" (koh santhipheap), so as

to maintain it as a Utopia (which had been an island) at a time when Cold War and

the twentieth century were penetrating every nook and cranny of the world. As in

the 1830s and 1840s, when the country had been a battlefield between Thailand and

Vietnam, Cambodia could offer no defenses of its own once the Cold War, and the twentieth

century, arrived in force.

The patterns of globalization that I have suggested might be bringing Cambodia's

autonomous history to a close began to be felt in the 1960s, and became even more

evident in Cambodia's civil war in 1970-1975. Without the Americans aiding Lon Nol

and the Vietnamese helping the Khmer Rouge, the fighting would never have killed

so many people or done so much harm to the country. Without Sihanouk's blessing,

the resistance would have struggled for legitimacy. The "Nixon doctrine in its

purest form", combined with misconstrued Marxism-Leninism and Sihanouk's appetites

for flattery and revenge, came close to making Cambodia disappear.

Ironically, Democratic Kampuchea, billed by the Khmer Rouge as launching Cambodia

into a beautiful, uncharted future, was in fact a vainglorious attempt to return

the country to its Utopian, island status, cutting it off from foreign influences

and infections while seeking "independence-mastery" in a way that favored

the Cambodian "race" (whatever that was) at the expense of the Vietnamese.

In effect, the Khmer Rouge tried to finesse the twentieth century and to remove Cambodia

from Southeast Asia. They wanted to turn the clock back, not to "year zero"

( a phrase that they never used) but to a time before corruption, streaming in from

elsewhere, had occurred. Lon Nol may have had the same kind of reversion in mind

when he named his futile offenses against Vietnamese "unbelievers" (tmil)

in 1970 and 1971 after a pre-Angkorean kingdom, known to Chinese as Chenla.

It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate the backward-looking aspects of the Khmer

Rouge era, which might be better characterized as a collective leap into the dark.

Although an image of Angkor appeared on the DK flag, as on every other one since

independence, references to Cambodia's supposedly glorious past were rare, harsh,

and without heroes. History was devalued because none of it, except the peasants'

recently demonstrated liberation, was thought to be worth preserving.

Isolationism failed in late 1978 when Vietnamese armies overpowered DK. Over the

next few years, Vietnam returned Cambodia to Indo-China and brought it into the confraternity

of socialist nations-in the last decade that the phenomenon existed. Aside from these

"openings", Cambodia was isolated from the rest of the world, and remained

a plaything of larger powers. The Peoples' Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) struggled

to introduce elements of socialism while restoring cultural and religious practices

that had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. The country's isolation from Thailand,

initiated under the French, continued while over half a million Cambodians sought

refuge across the Thai-Cambodian border. In those camps not controlled by the Khmer

Rouge, Cambodians came in contact with people from foreign countries, with western

institutions, global culture and with the possibility of emigration. In the 1980s,

"Cambodia" spread into southern California and into the suburbs of Sydney,

Melbourne, and Paris name only a few of their destinations.

Approaching recent Cambodian history via the personalities of its leaders is not

especially fruitful, except insofar as doing so sets the rulers in sharp contrast

with each other, as each of them strove to do. To begin with, the French sought to

introduce order into the chaotic administrative system that they found in Cambodia

when they arrived. Sihanouk, replacing them, tried hard to personalize his rule and

to inspire his "children", the Cambodian people. This flamboyance faded

under the taciturn Lon Nol, while the "Wild West" character of Phnom Penh

in the 1970s became, in turn, anathema to the smooth-featured, secretive Pol Pot.

The Vietnamese, like the French, offered collective, depersonalized protection and

guidance-the "monologue of colonialism" again-to a severely damaged country,

while in the 1990s Hun Sen, like Sihanouk, has sought to impart a highly personal

flavor to his time in power.

At no time, except perhaps under Sihanouk in the decade following independence, has

a preceding regime been given credit for anything, or has continuity been favored

over change. The inability that has plagued Cambodia's politics throughout its history

diminishes slightly under authoritarian rule, and respect for human rights diminishes

even more. There is no inherent stability in the Cambodian "system", which

is always dependent on a given regime's style, on shifting patterns of patronage,

and on the premises that winners take all and that political opponents, by definition,

put their lives at risk.

Cambodia's entry into ASEAN in 1999 marked its belated departure from Indo-China

and its entry into Southeast Asia from which it has been isolated by accident, warfare

or design since the 1860s.

Changes in world alignments have also altered the character of Cambodia's foreign

relations. As the century closes, several supposedly immutable "givens"

no longer apply. Cambodian foreign policy no longer consists (or will no longer be

allowed to consist) of playing its neighbors off against each other or of seeking

a larger, more distant patron to protect it from invasion. The menace of invasion

has faded, the neighbors are committed to globalization, and the larger patrons are

no longer there. With the end of the Cold war, Cambodia no longer serves as anyone's

sideshow or surrogate. Instead, as this often humiliating kind of history comes to

an end, Cambodia reverts to the status it enjoyed on and off in times of peace following

the decline of Angkor, identifiable once again as a small Buddhist kingdom with a

glorious past and few resources other than those displayed on a daily basis by its

resilient, courageous people.

David Chandler teaches at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Voices from

S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison (University of California Press).


  • Ministry orders all schools, public and private, to close for SEA Games

    From April 20 to May 18, all public and private educational institutions will be closed to maintain order and support Cambodia's hosting of the 32nd SEA Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games, said a directive from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Cambodia will host the

  • Almost 9K tourists see equinox sunrise at Angkor Wat

    Nearly 9,000 visitors – including 2,226 international tourists – gathered at Angkor Wat on March 21 to view the spring equinox sunrise, according to a senior official of the Siem Reap provinical tourism department. Ngov Seng Kak, director of the department, said a total of 8,726 people visited Angkor Wat to

  • Angkor Beer strengthens national pride with golden new look and fresher taste

    Angkor Beer – the "Gold of Angkor" – has a new look, one that is more stylish and carries a premium appeal, as well as a fresher taste and smoother flavour, making it the perfect choice for any gathering. Angkor Beer recently launched its new design, one

  • Water supply authority assures public shortages over early ‘24

    The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) asked for understanding from Phnom Penh residents in some communes where water pressure is weak. They assured residents that all supply issues will be resolved by early 2024, but have suggested that residents use water sparingly in the meantime.

  • Khmer ballet documentary debuts April 1

    A new documentary, The Perfect Motion, or Tep Hattha in Khmer, will premiere to the public on April 1. The documentary film follows two intertwined storylines: the creation of a show called Metamorphosis by the late Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (her very last production) and the

  • Newest horror film showcases unique Khmer culture, identity

    At first glance, the trailer to new horror sensation The Ritual: Black Nun looks like a western-produced feature film. As the story reveals itself to the viewers, it becomes clearer that this is a Khmer film, with a strong Cambodian identity and close links to