The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

In the spotlight: Theara Thun

Bangsāvatār: the evolution of historiographical genres in colonial and post-independence Cambodia

I have spent almost seven years collecting and studying Khmer texts, especially the chronicle manuscripts (bangsāvatār), which were popularly used prior to the 1970s by Cambodian scholars and Buddhist monks to recount their collective past events. These manuscripts, particularly those produced between the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, represent ideas and perspectives related to cultural and political values, intellectual exchanges, and clashes of knowledge among French and Cambodian scholars during those years.

A monograph based on my PhD dissertation, the project is the first critical study that focuses on the relationship between local texts and figures from the pre-colonial years until the post-independence period. Through uncovering more than ten rare Khmer chronicle manuscripts drawn from archival collections in Cambodia, Thailand, France, and Japan, it aims to break a new ground by exploring the scholarship produced by local intellectuals that have been under-studied and by presenting the significance of their scholarly engagement within Cambodian and Southeast Asian textual cultures and intellectual history. One of its key findings suggests that the coming of French colonialism and colonial-era historiography had led to the emergence of different schools of thought among local intellectuals, including those who actively engaged in translating French and Thai scholarship into Khmer.

IIAS is an ideal place to work on this monograph because it offers a very important platform for interacting with other research fellows from all over the world as well as researchers and faculty members of Leiden University. This interaction not only allows me to learn new perspectives useful for my project but also connects me with a winder network of scholarly community of Asian studies. The rich collection of sources related to Malaysia and Indonesia in the Asian Library of Leiden University provides a unique opportunity for me to explore scholarship on manuscript cultures in the other parts of Southeast Asia and to draw connections to the case that I explore in Cambodia. Another reason I like IIAS is its location in Leiden, where I enjoy exploring the city’s beautiful landscape by jogging around at the weekend and easily travel to Paris and other parts of Europe to conduct archival research and participate in conferences.