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Khmer history scholar dies at 88

Claude Jacques meets with King Norodom Sihamoni last June to be decorated with the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Sahametrei. Photo supplied
Claude Jacques meets with King Norodom Sihamoni last June to be decorated with the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Sahametrei. Photo supplied

Khmer history scholar dies at 88

Scholars of Khmer and Southeast Asian history are mourning the passing of professor Claude Jacques, a prolific academic of ancient stone inscriptions, who will be laid to rest today at the town chapel of his countryside home in the Oise region of France. He was 88.

“His demise marks the end of a uniquely rich, century-long contribution of French scholarship to understanding the remarkable five centuries of the ancient Khmer Empire,” Jacques’s friend and colleague Dr Peter Sharrock of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies said in an email. Even Jacques’s last paper, delivered to the French School of the Far East (EFEO) in 2016, he noted, revealed new knowledge on King Tribhunadityavarman, successor to Angkor Wat builder Suryavarman II.

“His enthusiasm for new research and his playful humour appeared unshakable,” EFEO Director Yves Goudineau said via email. Jacques is remembered as a dear friend to many prominent academics, including David Chandler.

Born on March 19, 1929, in France’s rural Marboz commune, where his father was a doctor, Jacques grew up in a deeply Catholic family, though he would later become an atheist. He was one of the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters. His path to becoming one of the most esteemed epigraphists – a scholar of stone inscriptions – on Cambodia was one of “following a trail of pebbles on the road”, his 75-year-old widow, Dominique Jacques, told The Post.

It started with a prank with a friend, she said, while he was studying letters at the University of Lyon in the 1950s. Upon hearing the complaints of a classmate that each time a new student joined the Sanskrit class the professor would restart from the top of the curriculum, “one day as joke, Claude and another friend went to the Sanskrit class”.

But Claude was quickly drawn into the subject, and after a brief stint in Pondicherry, India – where he would later meet Dominique – he was on his way to Phnom Penh. In 1961 he began working at the EFEO office on Monivong Boulevard under the famous epigraphist George Cœdès, who at the time had no successor.

Cœdès, Dominique claimed, “told him . . . ‘Don’t hesitate; everything I’ve done needs to be redone’, and right away from the start that’s what he did”.

“His passion in life was Cambodia, all the time, Cambodia,” Dominique said. The couple left the Kingdom in 1970 to return to France, where, separated from the country he loved, Jacques continued to study ancient Khmer engravings. He continued to teach in Paris, becoming a director of the elite École pratique des hautes etudes in 1973.

Among his students, notes EFEO Professor Olivier de Bernon, was Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Jacques would be among the first to return in successive visits after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, starting in 1979.

Dominique described her husband as highly cerebral and “always inside his own head”, with a near-fanatical obsession with Cambodia that would build “from year to year”.

“Sometimes I would be furious with him as he would leave for months on end, and when the children were young that was not easy . . . They would say, ‘Are you sure papa is coming home?’” she said.

In 1988 he helped establish the Friends of Angkor, an association of experts that was instrumental in planning the administration and conservation of the Angkor Archaelogical Park. He would also serve as special counsellor to Unesco’s then-director general, Federico Mayor.

According to his wife he continued to work on inscriptions until he suffered a stroke in December. He died of complications on Tuesday night last week after over a month of hospitalisation.

In a Facebook post, Minister of Culture Phoeurng Sackona called Jacques’s death “a very big loss for Khmer culture. He . . . remains forever in the heart and memory of our people.”

In June last year, King Norodom Sihamoni bestowed upon Jacques the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Sahametrei for his contributions.

He is survived by his widow, Dominique; his sons Thomas, 47, and Charles 43; his stepdaughter Sophie; a granddaughter, Julie, 17; as well as a brother and two sisters.

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