Cambodia – On History and Society

The content of this page is constantly growing – there might be occasional inconsistencies, especially with numbers and years – we usually have them in order after a day or two. There are topics, where the scholars still have to find a final consensus – e.g. the reasons for Angkor’s sudden decline. We try to stick to a moderate line here and go only into speculation when suitable, with the exception of the future, though.

Towards Early Modern History

For a start, we don’t want to deal with Cambodia’s glorious past here, at least for now,…. except for the necessary reference. We’d rather wish to begin with the time, when the old Khmer centers of power had vanished and/or were abandoned, the traditional and dynamic Hindu religion had long been replaced by introvert Buddhism. When the King’s power did not go beyond the actual people,that sought shelter in the vast jungles, in small, rural communities without defined territories, few commercial and civil centers, military strong-points and NO! more place of cultural synthesis and creation . The Kingdom was by then reduced to a mere idea in the head of anyone, who considered himself a member of the ethnic family. Udong had become the royal residence by around 1600, the area, where the Ton-le Sap River meets the Mekong – modern day Phnom Penh – gradually became the most efficient commercial hub, all far away from the ancient mountains of the gods.
Siam had gradually risen and had replaced the Khmer as the dominant power in the region. In a series of raids and conquests, the already weakened Khmer kingdom lost not only its central land, its riches and the city of Angkor, but its culture, arts and civilization. The upper echelons of society, scholars, artists, artisans and engineers were relocated at the Siam court, nowadays still remembered in the legend of Preah Khan and Preah Koh – the golden sword and the golden cow. These palladia had found their final resting-place in the heart of Lovek – the last great Khmer capital. They can be seen as the embodiment of national strength, wisdom and culture. Once gone, Cambodia entered its dark age. Siamese influence and expansion had lost its élan after the capture of Lovek in 1594, hemmed by Siam’s unsettled domestic power struggles and its permanent clashes with the Mon and the Burmese in the West. Still Cambodia became a vassal of Siam accompanied by many traditional customs, such as the obligation to send hostages – members of the royal family – to the master. Usually the future king of Cambodia was chosen from these people who had been raised at the Thai court and more open to Thai ideas – in order to exert more control, increase loyalty. accompanied by sublime marriage policies to legitimize dynastic claims.

Both people adhered to the same religion, by then Theravada Buddhism – the small vehicle – the older unadorned form, that shines very little. There was no benevolent Avalokeshvara, embodied by the king, as Jayavaraman VII once had been, the path to nirvana here is an affair of the monk only. For the masses there was little prospect of salvation without full dedication to a life as a monk. Still, on a greater, religious, cultural and national level, there was a degree of identification with each other. The Thai kings’ idea of colonization was rather that of a father toward a lost child, that simply needed re-integration into the family.

There is an amusing story, that in essence underlines Cambodia’s weak position – how Siem Reap had obtained its name: Siem=Siam and reap=fallen. A large Thai army was on the march towards Cambodian lands, the opposing Khmer too little in number fled the scene of the forthcoming battlefield, which happened to be just south of the ancient temples of Angkor. The only one staying behind was the cook. When the Thai arrived, they demanded him to cook for them. He complied and poisoned them. The entire army fell on the spot – dying to the last man – Seam Reap…fallen Siamese.

By the middle of the 17th century a new power had emerged in the East – the Vietnamese. They had already decisively defeated the Cham – The Khmers’ long-time rival – in the central highlands and had destroyed their capital. The Chams began their diaspora, the majority settled in Eastern Cambodia. Vietnam – a Sino people, has unlike Thailand, little cultural bonds with Cambodia. Her colonial policies were much more aggressive with the ultimate aim of complete “Vietnamization” – of religion, language and civil structure. The Mekong delta was ceded to Vietnam around the time of the French revolution, which cut off the nation from maritime trade.

image: Cambodian kite…a mechanism, devised by children in the countryside, it allegedly seemed to work just as a helicopter – more at: subvision dot net 

Cambodian helicopter toy

Early Modern History

We begin here with the establishment of the French protectorate in 1863 during the reign of king Norodom. He is honoured as the saviour of the nation by, ironically, complying to French demands, the protectorate. There was not much he could do anyway, but at least Thai and Vietnamese incursions would come to an end. Without it the Mekong River would probably have been very soon the border between Thailand and Vietnam – Cambodia as a nation non-existent. The French even forced the Thai to hand over the agriculturally rich Battambang province and the Siem Reap province with the temples of Angkor by placing gunboats at the mouth of the Chayo Praya River ( with Bangkok in range ).

King Norodom of Cambodia

Modern History

Cambodian society is to a great deal still how A N Y society and nation – that includes the USA – was a 100 to 150 years ago – from times immemorial…

We are going into the subject by beginning with King Sihanouk’s coronation in 1941. The French colonial authorities considered him easy to manipulate, which turned out not to be the case. French Indo-China became battleground of WWII in the years that followed, the first major blow to French prestige was the Japanese occupation. Although the Japanese treatment of French officials was moderate (because French officials pragmatically identified with Vichy France, an ally of Germany and, subsequently Japan), an Asian nation had defeated the seemingly invincible Europeans. The young king just needed to remain calm and see, how he and his people could benefit from the events unfolding… After the Japanese surrender, bizarrely the British, with the support of – leftover – Japanese troops tried to restore colonial order, the French followed soon. But times had changed. The infallibility of Western powers was a thing of the past. Sihanouk acted now and launched his “royal crusade for independence”. The French strategic position in Indo-China steadily weakened and support from the mother-land dwindled to the point of general opposition. By 1953 an agreement on “partial transfer of sovereignty” was signed. Sihanouk declared independence – the French were im… , but their decisive defeat in the following year at Dien Bien Phu ended all hopes of restoration of authority. What followed was the Geneva conference. Cambodia was able to legitimize its independence and declare its position as a neutral state. Things looked great for now. The country became a sort of constitutional monarchy, all power in the hands of the administrative institutions. The King played no role here, moreover he was not allowed to join a political party. Sihanouk did not feel at ease with that, to say the least. To meet his ambitions, he simply abdicated in March 1955, installed his father on the throne, adopted the name “Prince Sihanouk” and established his own party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Popular Socialist Community, by merging the majority of the many existing small parties into one “movement of national union”. Elections were overwhelming successes for the prince. There was no opposition to be reckoned with in the countryside. People there did not discriminate between the former king and the political prince. In their minds he remained an abstract mythical being with supernatural features watching over his children. The cities were home to educated citizens, who were more likely to support the two opposing parties that had been left – the Left-leaning Democrats, whose existence dated from 1945, and the Pracheachon, the party which the communists had founded in 1951 as part of their two-track ‘ballot box and bayonet’ strategy. By brutal suppression, Sihanouk for the first time revealed his darker side.

Speculation: Even with all his opponents in place he probably could have ruled with a sizeable majority. Parts of his personality, his aristocratic background and his idea of exclusive right to shape the future of the country eventually prevented this.

Still, Cambodia blossomed like never before, commerce, infrastructure, industry, health, education attained unparalleled quality. Sihanouk summed it up with the term of “Buddhist Socialism”.

But again, Vietnam would influence the nation’s fortunes.

singer Ru Serey Sothea image: famous singer Ru Serey Sothea, probably the most accomplished artist of modern times in Cambodia. She would compose most of her music herself, her voice was so powerful, she still could be heard very well whenever the microphone failed. She fell victim to the Khmer Rouge. Ru Serey Sothea (copy and paste -> search engine)

Alien Incursions – Laws Against

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy (again) since the early nineties with a parliament and representatives of a number of political parties in it. There are elections every four years or so. Sounds very much like in a Western country. But there a differences. This modern pluralistic, Western political system has been implemented by the U.N. during its mandate from 1991 to 1992 in an attempt to reconcile the then existing factions.
The basic problem is that there never has been a tradition of pluralism – ever. There was a spirit of democracy during the fifties, encouraged by a number of intellectuals, which soon had been overcome by (then) Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkat party, that had in fact come to power in an – arguably – ordered election, with the former King as its figurehead. Sihanouk had abdicated in order to run a political office.
The election was a overwhelming success, the manifestation of the people’s desire to see their divine ruler take care of things, as it always had been. When Sihanouk visited the provinces as the representative of a political party, the people prostrated in front of him, fainted as if he still was the preah=holy sdach=king, the mythical awou=father of the nation.
In this context, it is important to realize, that Cambodia, as most Asian nations, never underwent the sort of religious and civil changes and epoches as Europe did with its gradual change of self-realization of its very citizens. There never was a Renaissance, an Enlightenment and so on. The Cambodians, who effectively lived in an oriental medieval kingdom were confronted with a radically new and advanced world when the French appeared in the 1860’s. Only 30 years later the palace in Phnom Penh (build by the French) was illuminated by electrical light.
This gap in consciousness and this tension of ancient beliefs, in particular the pan-Asian superstitions and animism with modern rational ideas does still exist. For most modern Cambodians, there is obviously no problem with what they think is a fact, that they own a smart phone, which is the culmination 200 years of scientific and technological progress and the voice of an ancestor, neak ta = a ghost speaking from it. But there are problems, not so much technological problems, but problems in the perception of what is wrong and right. The family and the kingdom have always been the units of identification, the modern state with its mostly imported and alien ideas has always been frowned upon. Many of these laws are perceived as contrary to social harmony and well being. Traditionally there has been the oknya=(noble) representative of the king, who assured the necessary tribute for the royal court. The remaining organisation, the fostering of the temples has usually been left to the community in a fashion, which is by modern standards just – corrupt.

The period of French rule did little in terms of filling historical gaps, while the short period of relative democracy under Prince Sihanouk did exactly that. Many young people, who had accomplished higher education soon began to question the shortcomings of the present form of government. Anyhow, the regime that followed – Democratic Kampuchea – (we skip Lon Nol here) catapulted the nation back beyond the stone age. The brief period of enlightenment, that lasted less than 15 came to a brutal end with civil war and eventually the well known “Auto-genocide” of the Pol Pot era. Cambodian mentality did again not ponder lingering questions of the 20th century. Security and harmony remained a distant dream, embedded in medieval kingdom watched over by a preah=holy king, made of gold.

Up to the present time many people are convinced that ideas from outside not not benefit the common cause of the nation. people are puzzled by the the meaning of obviously ambiguous ideas, such as the following:
Legal advisers of allegedly advanced countries regularly remind Cambodians that the recreational use of cannabis is unlawful and morally degraded, illegal etc… and needs strict prohibition, while on the other hand the very people of these countries – the tourists – who visit Cambodia seem to wish to do this more than anything else.
Cambodians wonder: How can a government, which is allegedly being elected by the majority and allegedly represents the position of the majority vigorously pursues policies that are contrary to that?
Clearly, the government of Cambodia is not particularly famous for implementing the will of the masses, but on the other hand it does not restrict the people’s traditinal way of life either.

flag Cambodia  Japanese rule

flag Cambodia under Japanese occupation

 image: flag of Cambodia under Japanese occupation


Here deal with the problem of the Cambodian mind-set in respect to a changing and globalizing world.

For anyone who follows global political developments on a regular basis it seems to be certain that Western influence is waning in Asia and China is about to step in. China is – like in many other countries – by now – 2013 – the biggest investor here and will remain so for a long time. Cambodians seem to be fine with that, simply because of the perceived greater straightforwardness of the Chinese, which goes into all levels of daily life. And the cultural similarities – Cambodian women preferably watch Chinese soaps, soaps embedded in historical, fictional, fairy tale stories. People are familiar with the symbols, creatures, spells, allusions, contextual stories – and do instantly identify with it. This will not so easily be the case with a (white)Hollywood-hero who fights a – let’s say – street-gang of Korean ethnicity in the suburbs of an American city.

The Chinese say and take what they want, in contrast to the ironic and conjunctive style of Westerners. Irony, in particular is something you are not supposed to apply – it is simply not well understood. Undecorated Present Perfect is the key to successful communication. Anything that goes further conjures up spiritual impulses and produces uncertainty. Elaborate language is a clerical thing – in most Asian societies – to this day.

Cambodians do not read books, newspapers and so on – a vestige of the Pol Pot area. Many elderly people seem to have a desire for over-simplification – an important instrument in the struggle for survival during Democratic Kampuchea. Silence is golden. This attitude finds support in the national religion, which posyulates to resign yourself to the harsh and static realities. Here lingers the greatest obstacle for the future. Most Cambodians are trapped in their static view of the world up to an extent that makes them utterly inflexible in the face of even the simplest tasks.