Cambodia and its own narrative: A history of ideas

Karel van Oosten

What factors constituted the nation of modern Cambodia? This question is the sum and substance of Penny Edwards' book Cambodge, The Cultivation of a nation 1860 -1945. Cambodge being the French translation for Cambodia before it became an independent modern nation at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century.

The narrative designates the cultural pillars of the framework that gradually shaped the Khmer nation from 1863 - the year the French established the protectorate - until the year 1954 when Cambodia regained independence from France. Penny Edwards, (who teaches in Southeast Asian studies at the University of California Berkeley), presents her story of Cambodge during this period as a history of ideas. Although the focus is predominantly on French sources, she reveals many Khmer literary sources as well and from a quite unexpected perspective.

David Chandler qualified the history of Cambodia in the period following the Second World War as a tragedy. The time of Cambodia during the Protectorate was full of historical irony and one of the conclusions of this book is that history-making is largely an illusive idea, even if things seem different. The irony is that France initiated implicitly or explicitly much of what would later become decisive forces leading towards independence.

The cultural icons of Angkor Vat or the temple complex near Siem Reap symbolise an including idea of almost every subsequent regime in Cambodia starting from the beginning of the 20th century to the Pol Pot regime and the current government. When we consider the importance of the Angkor ideology in Democratic Kampuchea, we can hardly overestimate the significance that conceptual ideas play in Cambodian history.

France considered its mission civilisatrice as an attempt to set Cambodia on the map of the civilised world. Edwards writes of the meaning of Angkor for the French: ‘... staking its reputation as a guardian of global civilization on its claims to be salvaging and reclaiming the temple ruins "from the uncivilized for the greater benefit of humanity" France declared itself the heir to Angkor (29)'.

The indigenous elite responded to the French colonial administration who held the key positions in society, ranging from the military to the scholarly - and sometimes combining both -either positively or negatively and picked up ideas to flavour them to their own taste. The Second World War remains a decisive moment, but Edwards shows that the war is also the culmination of a whole set of causes that grew in importance in the preceding decades.

Angkor and everything that resonates with this name stands as a causa sui generis.

The French pride themselves on the rediscovery of the Angkor temples in 1860. They infused the temples with a secular spirit that remains to this day. Angkor could thus well be characterised as the benchmark for all Cambodian ideologies ever since.

Edwards gives a clear and well-documented historical picture of what happened to the idea of Angkor. To the French colonials it was a complete surprise to stumble on such massive heaps of stones and from the beginning, some realised its terrific importance for the Patrimoine. They recognised the huge potency to exploit these wonderful ruined buildings from a magnificent past as a symbol for the greatness of France. Soon even the question was raised why the people who had built this complex had vanished, because it seemed unbelievable that the Khmer people of 19th century Cambodia were the true descendants of this superior class.

One of the surprising discoveries of the author is the role of Buddhism in the making of the nation of Cambodia. She focuses on the modernisation of the religion and especially the Khmer language. The Khmer word jiet came to mean both the word for race and nation and, in combination with the word sasana it denoted the idea of a national religion. A gradual purifying of Buddhism took place from the second decade of the 20th century onward. Edwards weaves gripping stories of the lives and thoughts of two Cambodian monks who played a leading part in the modernisation of the Buddhist Sangha into her argument and gives detailed insight into the linguistic and religious ideas that constituted a great deal of the nationalist idea of Cambodia. She also portraits the life of Suzanne Karpelès, a remarkable woman who instigated much of what was to follow with regards to a sense of identity for the Cambodian people. Largely forgotten in official history, Suzanne Karpelès now gets her own credits. Being from Jewish descendance, she had to retreat from Cambodge when the Vichy regime was installed. Karpelès was forced to leave the Buddhist Institute that she had established in 1929 when George Coedès, the well known scholar of Asia, thought she could be an obstacle for the French regime in Indochine that was linked to the antisemitic Vichy regime in France.

There are two main threads in the argument of Edwards that lead to opposite directions. One is the importance of religion and especially Buddhism and the other is the secularisation of society. Edwards makes perfectly clear that the Buddhist Sangha has been crucial for gaining independence of Cambodia. The people of the small, more or less, secular cultural elite of Khmer origin were the new Neak Cheh Doeng or ‘the people who know what to do or how to act'. These people bridged the cultural gap between natives and foreigners.

The author pays elaborate attention to indigenous ideas that proved to be decisive in the cultivation of Cambodge as a modern nation until the Second World War. One can look at Cambodia today to see if anything is different. Cambodia like any other country in the world is confronted with globalisation, but it is evident that considering the specific historical traumatic circumstances of the country, the way in which this happens in Cambodia differs significantly from other countries. Today's Cambodia seems extremely vulnerable to foreign influences whether involving financial and currency matters or general societal developments. Taking into account the little sufficient educated level in Cambodian society, we can assume that again the elite will profit from the presence of the many foreign NGO's in Cambodia. In this sense the situation looks rather similar to the one Edwards describes in her book.

Ian Harris has rightfully noticed the neglect of indigenous religious sensitivities around the International Khmer Tribunal.[1] From the narrative of Edwards, we could have reckoned that this would happen. With the International Khmer Tribunal finally in full operation, Edwards' stimulating and rich argument is also a timely reminder of Cambodia's pitfalls and possibilities. The question of who owns history, if that is the correct expression, remains thus an important one.

Karel van Oosten. Graduate Universiteit Utrecht, the Netherlands. Student-researcher religious studies and intercultural theology.


[1] "Onslaught on Beings": A Theravāda Buddhist Perspective on Accountability for Crimes Committed in the Democratic Kampuchea Period. Draf May 2004. Unpublished?