If there is a period in Cambodian history that is overlooked and disparaged, it is without doubt the republican one (1970-1975). The Khmer Republic is often seen as a shell state - an illegitimate, corrupt, and incompetent American puppet. My project tries to challenge these longstanding views and revisit the complex reality of wartime Cambodia. To date, the republican period has been marginalized in research and mostly discussed through the disciplinary prism of political science, international relations, and history. Entire areas remain under-studied, for example women and war, youth culture and activism, the refugee crisis, the black market, and episodes of ethnic violence. Bringing into conversation visual culture, material politics, anthropology, critical archival practices, and urban studies, my project aims to produce a social and cultural history of the Khmer Republic (book). It is based on an expanded corpus which integrates textual, visual, material, sonic, architectural, and environmental resources and may thus reopen the scene to a wider array of local and regional actors. The project’s first motivation is to gain insights into wartime Cambodian society and shed light on a range of subjects such as the impact of the conflict on people’s daily life, political and social activism, the different types of mobility arising from war and militarization, and gender reconfiguration. The second motivation is to achieve a better understanding of the role of the Khmer Republic in processes of nation-building and modernization in Cambodia and reassess the multiple trajectories and interpretations of republicanism in the country. By resituating the Khmer Republic within a political, social, and cultural continuum, I propose to rethink the republican period at the intersection of the Global Vietnam War, the ‘indigenization’ of the Cold War, and a longue durée perspective on decolonization in Southeast Asia. I also seek to reconceptualize the space and time of the Khmer Republic by exploring its legacy in the Cambodian diaspora and in Cambodia’s contemporary political culture. The question of the archive (what can be retrieved, what can be produced) is at the core of the project. Materials from and about the Khmer Republic are disparate and scattered. The people who remember the republican period first-hand are now getting older. There is thus a pressing need to collect materials and accounts and think of their preservation. The project tries to offer a frame for this endeavor and contribute to this archival effort by mapping existing resources and, when possible, documenting ‘unlisted’ ones; producing a database structure that facilitates the accessibility of these materials for future research; developing an oral history section with video interviews of witnesses. The study of the republican urban fabric forms another part of the project. By showing how construction embodied republican ideas, it may provide a novel approach to the regime’s political imagination. It may also afford a granular understanding of city management, social dynamics, and practices of resistance and appropriation in wartime Phnom Penh. The project’s last part revolves around academic dialogue. In the past twenty years, there has been a growing body of studies revisiting the Republics of Vietnam through historical, political, and cultural lenses. Despite differences between the republican regimes in Cambodia and South Vietnam, hence the limitations in applying this scholarship to the Khmer case, the shared terrains could be productively explored in terms of methodology and cross-fertilization. With a view to organizing a conference at a later stage, I propose to kick-start the conversation with a series of meetings. This discussion will highlight the resonances between the two fields of study and possibly offer other perspectives on the Second Indochina War.
Stephanie Benzaquen-Gautier has received an IIAS Fellowship to conduct research at IIAS from 1 February until 31 July 2024.