The late historian, linguist, philosopher and politician Keng Vannsak was a pivotal player in the creation of modern Cambodia. Ninety years after his birth, his legacy remains as complicated as his prolific career
The 20th century intellectual Keng Vannsak is a hard man to pigeonhole.
Professionally, he wore many hats: philosopher, historian, linguist, professor, playwright, novellist, poet and, for a short while in the 1950s, statesman. During his life he invented the first Khmer typewriter, headed a major post-independence opposition party and published endless volumes of material ranging from literary criticism, to historical research, to linguistic treatises.
To some he was a champion of Khmer identity, regularly churning out grandiose treatises on Khmer history. To others, such as the late King Norodom Sihanouk, he was a menace and a quack.
Whatever he was, Keng Vannsak stands as one of 20th-century Cambodia’s most influential figures.
He is also one of its most controversial, having acted briefly as a mentor to the young Pol Pot in Paris.
But on the eve of what would be his ninetieth birthday on September 19th, the full scope of Vannsak’s legacy remains murky, and few outside of Cambodia’s educated elite have heard his name.
“Keng Vannsak was not a man of certainties,” said Corsican linguist and historian Jean-Michel Filippi. “He was much more a perpetual researcher with new ideas all the time. I’ve never seen such a personality with so many new ideas within a day.”
Filippi speaks rapidly and authoritatively. With baby-blue eyes, a wide forehead and a chipped front tooth, he lectures passionately about the past, flashing a knowing grin or raising up his hands in exuberance when arriving at a point.
If confronted with a wrong date or clarifying question, he might let out a disapproving “C’mon!” or “You need to know this!”
In a Phnom Penh cafe, Filippi described the life of Keng Vannsak, who he first met in Paris in 1997. The pair corresponded regularly for the next 11 years, until Vannsak’s death in a Montmorency hospital from lung failure at the age of 83.
At the core of his work, Vannsak sought to discover the pure essence of “Khmer-ness”. “Keng Vannsak was looking for what was really deep inside Khmer civilisation. He was trying to go as deep as possible,” said Filippi.
Khing Hoc Dy, a former student of Vannsak’s and France-based Khmer literature authority, described his late teacher similarly in a 2008 obituary, writing: “Professor Keng Vannsak is a rare intellectual who had a long-term, universal vision and concept of our Khmer culture and civilisation.”
But it was an unorthodox vision. Vannsak was convinced that Cambodian culture had been corrupted by outside influences, mainly Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism.
To find the “original Khmer” meant tracing Khmer culture back to a time before Indianisation – a process which began in the first century AD and which brought Indian writing systems, cultural traits and religions to Cambodia.
“He had a lot of crazy ideas, one of which was that Theravada Buddhism destroyed the Khmer Empire."
War of the Words
One of Keng Vannsak’s most impactful works was his book Principe de création des mots nouveaux, (Principles for the Creation of New Words), published in 1964.
It laid out a framework for coining new Khmer words, and was put forth as an alternative to the authoritative system devised by prominent intellectual monk Chuon Nath, lead author of the first Khmer dictionary, published in 1938.
Vannsak’s system, called Khmerization, argued against Nath’s method of employing Pali and Sanskrit scripts as a basis for formulating new words.
Vannsak insisted that new words should be created true to Khmer’s Austroasiatic roots.
His new method spurned a vigorous debate among intellectuals and later a campaign, led mostly by former students, to reform Khmer orthography and introduce words made through Khmerization into schools and universities.
The debate burned until as late as 2008, when Prime Minister Hun Sen decreed that all schools, government documents and newspapers would henceforth use words strictly from Chuon Nath’s dictionary.
That is not a completely outlandish idea, but he embellished this with charts and illustrations of Angkor sculptures purporting to show the pernicious influence of Buddhism,” remembered Donald Jameson, a US diplomat in Cambodia during the ’60s who spent many afternoons with Vannsak in his “very unique wooden house” in Tuol Kork.
“[Historian David] Chandler once described Vannsak to me as ‘a suitcase full of loony ideas’,” he said.
Certainly, the Kampong Chhang native was a bold thinker and many of his ideas ruffled feathers.
After all, he was opposed to the two institutions which made up the backbone of Cambodian society: the Buddhist sangha and the monarchy.
While leading the Democratic Party’s campaign in legislative elections in 1955, Vannsak regularly advocated doing away with the throne.
He had published a book of poems, Virgin Heart, which used Buddhist metaphor to pillory the monarchy. To Vannsak, the royal family weakened national unity.
“To be Cambodian is to belong to the Royal Palace and the pagoda,” said Vannsak in a 2002 interview with journalist and Pol Pot biographer Philip Short. “[Cambodians] are not citizens! They are only serfs, servants and slaves.”
Unsurprisingly, he earned a nemesis in King Norodom Sihanouk, who imprisoned him briefly in 1955 on the eve of the Democratic Party’s defeat – and the abdicated king’s success – at the polls. Later, in mid-1968 following the Samlaut uprising, he was put under house arrest for allegedly inciting students to revolt and possessing leftist sympathies.
His fortunes changed after the coup d’etat in 1970, when coup-leader Lon Nol took a liking to Vannsak and his anti-royalist leanings and personally placed him as head of the newly christened Khmer-Mon Institute.
But Vannsak quickly became disillusioned with the propagandistic school and stepped down a year later. He moved to Paris in 1971 to work for UNESCO as Cambodia’s deputy representative and chargé d’affaires of Lon Nol’s short-lived Khmer Republic in France, where he would spend the rest of his life.
In one of Vannsak’s final controversies, one that exemplified well his contrarianism, the historian claimed in a 2007 radio interview with Radio Free Asia that the mother of King Jayavarman VII, one of the most revered figures in Khmer history, was of Cham ethnicity.
Adding insult to injury, he claimed that the great god-king had given away Cambodian land to the Thais. It caused an uproar. In an open letter, more than a dozen Cambodian journalists labelled Vannsak’s ideas an “insult to the Khmer royal family”. The king himself weighed in, with Sihanouk shaming the octogenarian intellectual as an “inveterate republican, without any scruples, without any intellectual honesty.”
Vannsak clarified that he meant not to squander the ancient king’s reputation, but only to seek the truth regarding the roots of Khmer culture.
It was an intellectual quest that had come to define his life. It was also a question that had come to obsess another prominent countryman of his era – Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot.
Vannsak and Sar knew each other well. They had met while both in Paris during the early 1950s. Sar was there on a scholarship and Vannsak for teaching.
Sar and Vannsak became regular fixtures in each other’s lives: Vannsak’s French wife helped Sar find an apartment above a wine seller on Rue Letellier, across the street from Vannsak’s own flat.
Vannsak was a mentor to the young Pol Pot and other burgeoning Khmer communists in Paris.
They would often gather in Vannsak’s apartment in the 15th arrondissement to discuss events back home and political texts such as Stalin’s The National Question and Marx’s Das Kapital.
“I was their brother, their friend, the thinker, the professor. They learned to think, to reflect, by listening to me, by following me,” Vannsak told Philip Short.
Vannsak was never a Marxist, nor did he ever condone violence, but he lived on the political fringes and possessed an insatiable curiosity. In his own words:
“From certain points, I’m on the extreme left. Non-violent, of course. But from another side I’m accused of being an ultra-reactionary, because of the fact that I champion the autonomous identity of the Khmers; the return to all these traditional values and ideologies that have nothing to do with communism and socialism, which are a world away. It’s another philosophy.”
Historians debate the extent to which Vannsak’s ideas influenced Sar. Did the outspoken professor nurture Sar and company’s radicalisation? Filippi thinks not.
“It is very tempting and some people have considered that Keng Vannsak may have influenced these people. It is totally untrue. These people had already written their PhD theses,” he said.
From the fall of the Khmer Rouge on, Vannsak regularly denounced Pol Pot and his cronies. “They messed up everything ... they put the country on its knees,” he said in 2002 to Short.
He did not, however, try to whitewash his relationship with the young Sar.
“What he received from me – I say this without any pretentions – was an intellectual and political formation, a way of seeing things, of thinking, of predicting,” he said in 2002.
Filippi said that despite Vannsak’s wealth of published material, most Cambodians’ understanding of the prolific intellectual remained surface deep.
“Everyone knows Keng Vannsak here. But ask what he did and what he wrote – people won’t know,” he said.
“The main influence Keng Vannsak has exerted on Cambodian intellectuals is through literature and literary criticism. He created a totally new way of expression.”
In his poetry, Vannsak ignored the traditional metring system employed in Khmer poetry and used a fresh form, often including crude language and facetious metaphor.
“His poetry is a masterpiece from several points of view ... We could call it a revolution in poetry,” said Filippi.
Vannsak’s literary contributions, like his linguistic, historical and political work, fall into a category all their own. But perhaps that is the way he would have liked it. As the scholar himself once asserted, seemingly with some pride: “[People] don’t know where to place me. I’m unplaceable.”