In a hot, cramped room within the library at Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom, researchers Leng Kok An and Suon Kosal have just about finished packing a 2,500-kilogram delivery of newspapers into cardboard shipping boxes.
Kok An, Kosal and fellow researcher Kun Sopheap will escort the boxes beginning on Monday on a 20-day trip to Paris, eventually delivering the load to the French School of the Far East’s collection of Cambodian publications at the Library of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (BULAC).
There, under the watch of EFEO professor Olivier de Bernon, what may be the single largest collection of Cambodian newspapers and magazines is collected, going as far back as 1964.
“The Ministry of Information may not have this much information,” Kok An says with a laugh.
The collection was established in 1990 by de Bernon before it was acquired and funded by the EFEO in 2005, when Kok An and his colleagues made their first trip to Paris. This will be the third delivery to add to the trove.
“In the future people can look up what happened in this period. It’s evidence,” Kok An says. And while none of them actually read every single newspaper and magazine every day – their main preoccupation is the
study and curation of the ancient palm-leaf manuscripts held at Wat Ounalom – they see themselves as caretakers of history.
“We’re not only taking care of the history but also the tradition, the politics . . . They [the documents] are all for the younger generation to learn from,” Kok An said.
The collection prior to when de Bernon began actively collecting periodicals is from the private archive of the late American scholar Michael Vickery, who had gathered publications since 1979 through a network of friends.
Before the Khmer Rouge, de Bernon writes, the collection reflects the dominance of the French language in Cambodia, with over a dozen daily newspapers printed in French, as well as one of the few examples of a political satire publication – a Khmer and French newspaper called Psin-Psin.
Most of these were collected by former Prince Norodom Sihanouk. After the Lon Nol coup, Frenchman Gérard-Henri Brissé, a journalist and friend of Sihanouk, continued the collection, all of which were handed over to the EFEO along with the King’s trove in 2004 for safekeeping.
Within the archive, de Bernon says one can observe “deep transformations” of Khmer writing.
“They result mainly from innovations forced into the vocabulary during the ‘revolutionary’ [Khmer Rouge] period,” he wrote in a 2017 article, especially the use of speech to acknowledge class, age and social standing.
According to de Bernon, the collection is also a snapshot of literature. In the absence of publishing houses for novels or poetry, newspapers such as Raksmey Kampuchea, Koh Santepheap or even the National Police’s publication from 1980 through the early 2000s would publish literature in their pages, including translations of foreign novels or – at times – “syrupy and sentimental” romantic texts.
But it’s the political and social record of Cambodia and “the perspective that Cambodians have had of themselves throughout the course of this dramatic half-century of their history” that is also kept within the pages stored at the library, de Bernon writes.
These days, just nine daily newspapers are collected – compared to a peak of 207 separate publications in the ’90s – which reflects a new chapter in Cambodia’s media history.
Magazines were cut from the collection, Kok An says, because they only covered celebrity gossip.
“It is a problem in our society,” Kosal says of the ever-dwindling number of publications.
“If they can gain profit from it they continue, if not they shut down . . . However, in the Cambodia Daily case, it didn’t go bankrupt, but it was shut down because of other problems,” Kosal said.
Asked about whether the loss of independent media would affect the value of the archive, Kok An said that the team was preoccupied only with collecting and archiving, with the politics left to others.
“If anyone wants to analyse this matter it is their responsibility,” Kok An said, before reminding once more what they’re safeguarding. “It’s the evidence.”