Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer history scholar dies at 88

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Investors’ $14.4M projects approved

    New investments from local and foreign sources continue to pour into Cambodia despite the Covid-19 pandemic remaining a lingering threat to regional and global economies. This comes as the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract between one and 2.9 per cent this

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Rubber exports stretch 17%

    Cambodia exported 97,175 tonnes of natural rubber in the first five months of this year, surging 17 per cent compared to the same period last year as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Khuong Phalla told The Post on Thursday. Phalla,

  • ASEM supports Kingdom’s proposal to postpone meeting amid Covid

    The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) scheduled to be held in Cambodia in November has been postponed until mid-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement released on Saturday said. The decision was made during a two-day meeting

  • Coffee maker roasted for producing fake product

    The Ministry of Interior’s Counter Counterfeit Committee will send a suspect to court on Monday after she allegedly roasted coffee mixed with soybeans and other ingredients, creating a product which could pose a high risk to consumers’ health. On the afternoon of July 2, the

  • Cash handout programme 80% complete

    Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Soth confirmed on Thursday that the implementation of the Cash Transfer Programme For Poor and Vulnerable Households During Covid-19 had been implemented for more than 80% of the over 560,000 families. The programme was introduced one week ago.

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Where is Cambodia’s exit strategy that can save the economy?

    With the prospect of being slammed by a double whammy, the government is working on an economic recovery plan to deliver it from Covid-19 and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the Everything But Arms scheme in the next two to three years Cambodia is

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.