IN an out-of-the-way corridor in the University of Phnom Penh a group of students
gather around Professor Sam Yang. They hound him with questions about Cambodian history.
It looks like an impromptu course. They want to know why Kampuchea Krom was lost.
They have no pens or notebooks. They just listen, and question.
In a different room where panelists are discussing archeology, a group of ten students
buttonhole Professor Chea Chantha from the audience to debate ways of improving sociology
studies in Cambodia.
These scenes took place during the international conference on Khmer Studies at the
University of Phnom Penh during the last week of August. Ninety lecturers from 19
countries gathered to discuss all aspects of Khmer studies: linguistics, history,
culture and society.
The academics were blunt, challenging papers presented by their academic peers -
but more noticeable was the enthusiasm and thirst of the 700 Khmer students to challenge
the visiting professors and lecturers about their ideas.
The students crowded around Chea Chantha, from the Linguistic Minority Research Institute
in California, are all in their second year in sociology. They are curious, and are
anxious to know what links they can start with students in the US.
"We need their help to improve our knowledge and restore sociology," says
student Heng Vannak. "Sociology is very young in Cambodia and we need their
help to make sociology better. To receive books for example."
Everyone had something to say. They hardly let their friends finish before asking
their own questions.
"The academics from overseas show us new ways of studying. They do not use the
same methods as us," said Klok Seima.
"In the coming year, I want to ask my professor to work not only from the books
but also from life," he says. All the sociology students want to make 'real
life' experiments in what is usually a most theoretical study."
The students marked out the names of the visiting professors they wanted to talk
to. "We will not have time to see all of them," said Vannak.
"This is the first time that academics from abroad have come to such discussions
about Cambodia. That could be a way to make Cambodians aware of their own history,"
said Vong Sotheara, 23.
Sam Yang is one professor they managed to grab. He is from Washington, working in
the Research Council of Khmer Culture and Arts. He used to be a teacher in Cambodia
in the 60's before leaving for the States.
"I realize the incredible curiosity of the students. They want to know many
more things than what they can learn, especially in history," said Sam Yang.
"They cannot detach themselves from the national sentiment. Lots of the questions
are about border [issues]."
The students are passionate. They ask specific questions and wait till they get the
"They are asking me questions about Kampuchea Krom. It is one of their main
concerns and they are not happy with the answer they get from their own professors,"
said Sam Yang.
Students want to know how Kampuchea Krom was lost. Some of their professors say that
it is because of a decrease in the numbers of Khmer living in the area.
"Students believe that French colonialists are responsible for that," said
Sam Yang. "To resolve that problems, I explain to them that they need to have
access to a first source to be able to interpret."
"I tried to explain to them not to believe in me totally," he said, underlining
that academics can disagree on the same subjects.
Some of the students gathered around him have been the first to implement research.
This is the first research work being done since the end of the war.
Students work on theme given by their professors. They mostly had to deal with independence
or the UNTAC period.
"For the students it is difficult to implement the research. They are facing
several problems. One is a linguistic question. In the national archives depot, all
is written in French. Less than five per cent of them can speak French. Sometimes
they have to deal with secondary source documents.
"They express their concern about the level of knowledge they have. They believe
they are not up to the level and they complain about their access to documents,"
said Sam Yang.
During the conference Vannak tried to get advice on the methodologies used by the
"There are things I've learned during the conference that we never studied before,"
said Seima, giving examples of ethnic minorities or relationships with foreign countries.
"We could say what usually is not said," said Frédéric Bourdier
who did a paper on ethnic minorities in Rattanakiri.
Back to the students of sociology room, the discussion is still open. The students
keep on debating what they learned from the conference. One of the students starts
to raise the problems of political neutrality among the professors. He was cut off
by another and asked not to deal with politics.
"If the researcher still fears to express his opinion, I do not think that is
academic work. The professors have to clarify their positions. If they are both politicians
and academics at one time, it is not clear. When they speak to the students are they
politicians or academics?" said Sam Yang.