The period under which Cambodia existed under French protectorate and then colonial rule is one of the least studied in Cambodia’s history. Lacking the grandeur of the Angkor era or the terrors of the Khmer Rouge reign, the space in time between the 1860s and 1950s has attracted scant attention. Yet understanding the events of that time is fundamental to understanding the events that followed. from the founding and formulation of an independent nation in 1953 and beyond to the horrors that were subsequently unleashed. In her seminal work on this period, Penny Edwards looks at how outside inferences came to play a role in determining what it means to be Khmer.
France assumed control over Cambodia in 1867, only relinquishing it almost 90 years later in 1953. In that time, they regarded the country as a “museological state”, defined by colonial imagination and self-regarding civilising “benevolance” and the occidental imperative towards classification. In this way, Edwards shows how this period changed not only how the Khmer were viewed, but also how they viewed themselves.
As Edwards points out, outside scholars are not the only ones to have overlooked this period in Cambodia’s history. The Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea (DK) also regarded it as a “non-history”, a rupture in the story that ran from Funan to Angkor to Ang Duong to independence. She opens with a description of Pol Pot, who had written as far back as 1952 under the pen name “Kmae daem” (The Original Khmer).
Pol Pot was intuitively alive to the power of myth making, and it is this instinct which found a home in the idealised imagery of Cambodian sovereignty brought to life by France’s researchers. Within the framework of this narrative, Cambodia’s emerging nationalists were able to establish a vision rooted in ideas of Cambodia’s former power, and subsequent decline.
Notwithstanding French colonial propaganda, which held that Cambodians were changeless, suspended in cultural time and political space, the French intellectuals and administrators brought a range of influences, ideas and understanding to bear, and worked in tandem with Khmer elites, intellectuals, reformers and leaders. The understandings they elaborated were not as “monolithic” as the narrative adopted by Pol Pot and other nationalists.
In its attempt to “transform Cambodia’s culturally diverse terrain into an ethnically homogeneous, revolutionary utopia”, Pol Pot’s murderous DK regime “criminalised superstition, tradition, religion, and the linguistic, sartorial, and culinary expressions of ethnic difference.” He adopted a singular, inflexible view of what it means to be Khmer: a pure son of the soil, with the blood of Angkor’s builders coursing through his veins. In this cauldron, the confusion of nationalist myth with historical fact was useful.
But, Edwards points out, the problems do not rest there, yet persist as understandings of Cambodian society suffer from assumptions about the past which are still held by many today.
Largely recommended for academic scholars, this book nonetheless is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who wishes to understand more deeply not only Cambodia’s recent and less-recent past, but also its present.
Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860—1945 was published by University of Hawai’i Press in 2007.