Language & Identity

Language and National Identity in Asia
Edited by Andrew Simpson
Oxford University Press, 2007

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder


Since the early twentieth century, the Khmer language has been at the centre of a series of only partly successful attempts by Cambodian politicians to rework and re-present ethnic identities in Cambodian society into one with a unitary national core. Their lack of success reflects that of Khmer nationalist movements themselves, a failure all the more striking given the overwhelming linguistic hegemony of Khmer for a millennium in what is now Cambodia. The current Hun Sen-led political regime lacks a credible nationalist pedigree, and Cambodia now seems to be passing – some would say disappearing – into an era of Asianization within globalization, having never passed through a period of viable nationalist rule. Instead, after a series of at best weak and at worst catastrophically self-destructive regimes since the nine­teenth century – late classical, colonial, royalist, republican, communist, and liberal democratic – Cambodia still lacks an effective modern state and a self-sustaining national identity.

This chapter begins in section 13.2 with an outline of pre-colonial Cambodian history, looking at language and identity from prehistoric times, through the renowned Angkor period to subsequent polities and the establishment of a French Protectorate in 1863. In section 13.3, it considers French-Cambodian interaction in the elaboration of the idea of a Cambodian nation and discusses the role of language and Khmerization in Cambodian nationalism and political contestation up until the end of the French domination in Cambodia in 1953. Sections 13.4-7 – covering 1953 to 1991 – document the at first fitful and then accelerating advance of lingu­istic Khmerization in often fraught political contexts, including war, revolution, genocide, and renewed foreign domination: in independent Cambodia under Prince Sihanouk, then during the ill-fated Khmer Republic, on through the catastrophic years of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and thereafter under Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s. Finally, section 13.8 looks at issues of Khmer language use, national identity, foreign involvement, and multi-ethnic revivalism in contemporary Cambodia since the United Nations peace-keeping intervention of 1992-3, bringing the account up to 2006.

I would like to thank the following, among others, for their many comments, corrections, criticisms, and suggestions regarding various earlier drafts of this chapter: Michel Rethy Antelme, Chan Sambath, David P. Chandler, Mike Davis, Penny Edwards, Ian Harris, Khing Hoc Dy, Helene Lavoix, Henri Locard, Laura McGrew, John Marston, Laura Summers, and Touch Bora. All have contributed to important improvements in the text, although not always in the ways their remarks intended, and the matters discussed here will, I hope, be the subject of much further research and debate.

13.2 Pre-colonial History: Before, During, and After the Angkorian Period

Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, is categorized as one of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, closely related to Mon, distantly related to Vietnamese and possibly also to Thai (Huffman 1970). A written Khmer has existed since at least the sixth century, being standardized when a script based on the Pallava way of writing Sanskrit was formulated for Old Khmer. Speakers of the Austro-Asiatic languages that begat contemporary Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese probably moved southward out of what is now south China into what is now Southeast Asia some 4,000 years ago. Those who spoke Old Khmer eventually established scattered, competing chieftainships around the Dang Rek escarpment which forms the modern border between Thailand and Cambodia and in the Mekong river delta and coastal areas that straddle both sides of what is now the frontier between southern Vietnam and Cambodia. The warring lowland chiefs flourished through interaction with maritime trade that produced multi-religious, culturally syncretic societies, but when these polities declined as sea-borne commerce moved elsewhere, the cockpit of Khmer political contestation shifted up the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers to the plains north of the Tonle Sap Lake and below the Dang Rek, culminating in the seventh to eighth centuries with more state-like political creations that inscribed Khmer on stone. These were the precursors of the principalities that built the monumentally awe-inspiring Angkor Wat and other temple complexes between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. The temples were the cosmic-symbolic centres of classical ’empires’ that at times stretched to the shores of the South China Sea and the Malay Peninsula. Their stitching together of widely separated centres of population – some primarily Khmer, others not – signified a quantum leap in political organization. However, it was not until the twentieth century that, in interaction with European political concepts, the temples were interpreted by Khmer as emblematic of a single and particular national culture associated with the Khmer language (Edwards 1999).

The word ‘Kampuchea’ was evidently first applied to these Angkorian polities (Mabbett and Chandler 1995), in which Old Khmer was the main vernacular language of elites and of many ordinary people alike, but in which other languages were spoken, constituting a cosmopolitan Cambodian civilization, in which a variety of cultural idioms were internalized. Thus, Angkorian civilization was heavily influenced by South Asian Brahmanist and varied Buddhist ideals, models, concepts, and vocabulary, and Chinese influences are also apparent. All of these were mixed and elaborated in fantastically creative ways that made the Angkorian polities re-creations of universal cosmic powers on earth (Wolters 1999).

Like most other such pre-modern empires, their inherent socio-economic and socio-political contradictions meant they experienced repeated episodes of political disintegration, as rivals challenged every established hierarchy, attempting to re- localize power and re-legitimate it as a new centre of the universe. Such claims to universality were, however, generally tolerant of diversity, culturally eclectic, and subject to frequent reinvigoration by new ideas, in a context where multi-religiosity was often seen as an indication of power (Harris 2005).

During the Angkor period, many Sanskrit terms were incorporated into Khmer, and rich poetic and other literatures in Khmer and Sanskrit developed, the texts of which were often considered sacred (Jacob 1996). This increased the distinction between written and spoken versions of Khmer, which was loaded with linguistic markers of the relative social status of speakers. From the thirteenth century, with the increasing adoption of Theravada Buddhism, its sacred language Pali became a major source of loanwords into Khmer, adding a new layer to the dichotomy between high and low Khmer. All of this was indicative of a lasting pattern, according to which Khmer speakers at all social levels have ‘enjoyed using for effect vocabulary drawn from different foreign origins’ (Jacob 1993: 164).

Having flourished for over four hundred years, Angkor as the centre of Khmer civilization was eventually abandoned in the fifteenth century as the centre of power shifted southeast to downriver sites such as Udong and Phnom Penh, closer to the newly developing maritime trade and further away from exposure to attack by increasingly aggressive Siamese forces. For the next several hundred years, the Khmer kingdom remained under heavy pressure both from Siam to the west, and Vietnam to the east, and in the process forfeited significant amounts of territory as both Siam and Vietnam expanded their areas of direct and indirect control.

By the early nineteenth century, the Cambodian polity known as Krong Kampu- cheatheupatai had in fact become geographically isolated from the maritime trade that was crucial to the development of neighbouring kingdoms centred on Bangkok (Siam) and Hue (Dai Nam). It was less centralized and had not travelled as far down the path of proto-national ethnicization as its neighbours (Lieberman 2003), leaving its subjects with a weaker sense of shared identity and the state a much less formidable entity with a limited reach. Its realm was highly vulnerable to attack from without and susceptible to disintegration from within. During the first half of the nineteenth century, it was overrun by rapacious Siamese military expeditions, annexed by Dai Nam, and beset with civil wars and rebellions, devastating its population and creating difficult conditions for cultural continuity. Bangkok and Hue imposed their candidates on the throne, and, at times, the court was in some ways almost as Siamese or – briefly – Vietnamese as it was Khmer. Hue’s attempts to Confucianize and Vietnamize Cambodia violated the previous Southeast Asian pattern of expanding political control by multi-ethnic coalition-building and working through local rulers, not only provoking elite-led popular rebellion, but adding a persistent element of poison to Khmer-Vietnamese relations (Chandler 2000).

Krong Kampucheatheupatai had its court at Udong, and the largest population centre was at the riverside entrepot of Phnom Penh. Long-established towns and villages were populated primarily by Theravada Buddhist Khmer speakers, but were also home to more or less assimilated Chinese from various dialect groups and Muslims who spoke Western Cham, an Austronesian language written in an Arabic script and with many borrowings from Arabic, Malay, and Khmer. Living near or in the hills were a multiplicity of Lao and other ethnic groups whose links to the realm were intermittent and primarily economic. Some of the uplanders’ languages were in the Mon-Khmer family, others related to Malay and Polynesian.

Although many Chinese were socially segregated into dialect groups, incorporation into the Khmer elite and Khmer society was relatively easy. Formally, any Chinese born in the kingdom was considered Kampuchean if he or she adopted Khmer customs and dress. In practice, many did become part of Khmer society and its elite, though maintaining a Chinese cultural distinctiveness, as no necessary connec­tion was made between cultural and political loyalties. At this time, ruling over a multicultural realm was still seen as indicative of royal greatness, and because of this the palace did not hesitate to appoint Chinese, Sino-Khmer, and Cham as provincial officials (Edwards and Chan 1995).

Despite political turmoil, court and Buddhist literature (in Khmer and Pali) was diverse. Literary Khmer was a sophisticated mix of Sanskrit, Pali, and the high language reserved for royal and aristocratic discourse. After years of contact, Khmer had adopted much Thai vocabulary and even – it seems – syntax, especially at the court, but also in popular speech (Huffman 1973). This provided the linguistic groundwork for a nineteenth-century vogue for imitating Thai that contributed to a new wave of creative experimentation in literary style (Jacob 1996), paralleling a similar process on the religious front where the introduction of Siamese courtly and religious culture encouraged a renaissance in the practice of Theravada Bud­dhism. This was also a period of rising Chinese literary influence on Cambodian texts via bilingual Sino-Khmer writers (Nepote and Khing 1987).

Still, Khmer was the lingua franca of political administration and the language of religious communication between Buddhist monks and the laity. The many young peasant men who became monks often learned to read and write at least some Khmer. However, as in the past, most written records were not for commonplace consumption: they were holy objects. Moreover, texts were recorded on perishable materials. This and the unsettled situation meant few survived from earlier centuries. Thus, for most Khmer-speakers, spoken literature – folktales, songs, riddles, and proverbs – remained much more important than written texts.

Note that some conventions contrast the word Khmer as a reference to the language and an ethno- linguistic group speaking it with the term Kampuchea and its Western-language derivatives such as Cambodia and Cambodge which have been used to designate a series of multi-ethnic polities existing from the sixth or seventh century through to the present. By such conventions, Kampucheans/Cambodians would include all these polities’ ethnically diverse entourages, followers, subjects, and citizens. However, these correspondences have been far from perfect and appear to have lost their applicability in the late twentieth to early twenty-first-century context.