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The strange adventure of the Cambodian currency

The strange adventure of the Cambodian currency


On the post office square, a beautiful Art Deco building now houses the restaurant Van, an insurance comp-any and the offices of the AFD (French Development Agency). An inquiring mind will not fail to notice on the gates the presence of little medallions with the initials CBI, which refer to the Bank of Indochina.

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This reminds us that among the various changes instituted by the French protectorate regime (1863- 1953)  was the creation of the first currency in Cambodia : the piastre.

Jean Daniel Gardère provides a brilliant account of this in his book about currency and national sovereignty. According to him, what is essential to understand in Cambodia is the impressive number of missed appointments between national sovereignty and one of its essential attributes: currency.

Even if the new currency was more Indochinese than Cambodian in order to be used in the three former French Indochina countries, this was the first time that Cambodia had access to a monetary unit used nation-wide.

How did the Cambodian economy work before ? What we know for sure is that from the first Indianised kingdoms (Funan, 1st–7th and Chenla, 7th – 9th century AD) to the Angkor=-ian Khmer empire (9th–15th century AD) and beyond, Cambodia never had a currency of its own.

From time to time, foreign currencies were used, but trade was mostly synonymous with a barter economy. It’s hard to believe, especially when we bear in mind the huge size of the 13th-century Khmer empire and its gigantic religious compounds.

If the French protectorate regime initiated monetary modernity in Cambodia, political independence (1953) was followed by the accession to monetary sovereignty with a central bank (1955) and a new currency, the Riel.

The name of the currency is often supposed to have come from a little Mekong river fish named the riel. There is another more serious etymology : Malay, Indian and Chinese merchants made wide use of the Mexican real in mid-19th-century Cambodia, because of its high silver content, and the name Riel almost certainly came from the real. Incidentally, Mexican silver coins can still be bought in the Russian Market.

We have many essential details about the National Bank of Cambodia at the time of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (1955-1970) in the recently published memoirs of its vigorous governor, HE Son San.

The monetary policy of the Sihanouk years has often been described as remarkable and quoted as a proof that the public sector was not opposed to a realistic and rigorous monetary policy.

The Khmer republic that followed the March, 1970 coup d’état gives the impression of being a total fiasco economically and elsewhere.

Among the heroic deeds Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) achieved was the abolition of currency. 

Although a revolutionary currency had been printed in China a few months before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge banknotes were never used and can still be purchased in the Russian market. As a matter of fact, it’’s diffcult to see a use for currency in a country where the most elementary forms of trade had been abolished.

The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1992) had the task, rather unusually for a communist regime, of restoring the currency. In the first months of the existence of the regime, dong and baht were used and the first Riel banknotes, printed in Moscow, arrived in Cambodia on March 20, 1980.

The regime that followed the Paris agreements (1991) raises a new and interesting question about the relat-ionships between currency and sovereignty : dollarisation.

Due to the huge amount of US dollars that entered the country at the time of UNTAC (1992-1993), the National Bank of Cambodia could control but a very small portion of the money supply, and this situation still characterises today’s Cambodian monetary landscape.

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