A UN Protectorate and Restored Kingdom of Cambodia, 1991-Present

Language and National Identity in Asia: Cambodia (by Steve Heder) – the Present

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

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.8 A UN Protectorate and Restored Kingdom of Cambodia, 1991-Present

Fighting between government and insurgent forces continued until 1991, when the Paris Agreements on Cambodia were reached, providing for an end to warfare, UN neutralization of Cambodia’s political environment, the organization of free and fair elections, and the transformation of the country into a multiparty democracy with a market economy. Since this time and the occurrence of elections in 1993, Cambodia has again become a monarchy under Sihanouk and then his son, Sihamoni, but has been largely dominated by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen, a former member of the CPK, first as part of a coalition government with a regenerated royalist party, FUNCINPEC, and later in full control of political power, after violent sidelining of the royalists in 1997.

In the period since 1991 Cambodia has undergone unprecedented socio-economic transformation, largely driven by Southeast and East Asian capital in the context of a spectacular internationalization of the country. CPP policy has made Cambodia the most open country in Asia to foreign capital and is proudly turning it into an open economic crossroads between China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Further cosmopolitan­ism is provided by the presence of a plethora of foreign governmental, UN, intergov­ernmental and international non-governmental organizations (Trannin 2005). Against such a background, Hun Sen’s CPP remains the primary champion of linguistic Khmerization. The hegemony of Khmer in its internal communications and with the population is overwhelming and unchallenged. Still closely linked to the Viet­namese, now economically and diplomatically dependent on China and mindful of the power of the United States, the CPP hardly has a nationalist Other. As the UN levelled the electoral playing field to the CPP’s disadvantage in 1993 and has criticized its human rights record since, Hun Sen occasionally uses the United Nations as a nationalist whipping boy. He has also sometimes sniped at Thailand, but after this provoked riots in 2003 that severely damaged Thai investment, this theme was dropped to attract Thai money back.

Linguistically, CPP co-optation of the royalist party FUNCINPEC since 1998 has helped revive royal- and aristocracy-speak, which confirms and reinforces the elevated social status of the parvenu CPP ruling class around Hun Sen, who is styled a samdech (‘prince’). These strata demand a kind of re-feudalized linguistic respect and mostly get it when those of the lower social order address them to their faces. More generally, the
Khmer spoken by elite and masses alike now includes much communist terminology and even a few republicanisms. The resulting Khmer transcends twentieth-century political dialects.

It is in this fused Khmer that the CPP dominates the media. After a period following the UN’s implementation of the Paris Agreements when all political sides freely published newspapers critical of others, opposition print media have now again become politically tame and operate under constant threat. In the present climate where serious political criticism risks repression, freedom of the press has often been a licence for a bribery-driven gutter journalism, and there is no serious, independent Khmer-language news periodical. This leaves the field open for the pro-CPP tabloid Reaksamei Kampuchea, which has print runs of almost 20,000 daily.

Printed materials indeed still touch a very limited readership, being much surpassed by radio and now television. By 2003, television reached 52 per cent of all Cambodians, radio 38 per cent and newspapers only 9 per cent. As ever, this promotes oral over written culture, albeit in new ways. In one sense, the main successor to the previous oral literary tradition is in the lyrics of the booming music market, overwhelmingly sung in Khmer, although contemporary music is an eclectic mix of traditional melodies and influences from Asia and the West. Well aware of such shifts, the CPP has exercised tighter control over radio and television than the marginal newspaper sector, and has its own stable of pop stars. Television channels are entirely or predominantly pro-CPP, as are radio stations with the greatest range, although a few smaller, privately-owned or NGO-operated stations air programming critical of the government.

Meanwhile, with heavy foreign funding and involvement, the government has extended the Sangkum and PRK policies of expanding free basic education in Khmer, with significant but as yet very incomplete success. Despite recent increases, per capita public spending on education is well below what is needed to ensure basic education for all or reach adults who never learned to read or have forgotten how. Only 36 per cent of the population over 15 years is functionally literate. Of the remainder, 37 per cent are totally illiterate and 27 per cent are semi-literate. A claimed 70 per cent literacy rate thus masks much lower rates among older Cambodians, females, poor rural people, upland minorities, and people living in areas where armed conflict ended relatively recently. Cambodia remains behind – often greatly behind – almost all the rest of Asia in terms of school-going, literacy, and teaching professionalism. Figures from 2003 indicate that 80 to 90 per cent of children began primary school, but at best 20 per cent made it into secondary school and only 8 or 9 per cent finished this level. Nevertheless, enrolment is increasing, and government policy aims at doubling the number of those continuing on to the secondary level by 2008, having all children in primary school by 2015, and reducing adult illiteracy by 50 per cent by the same year. The achievement of these goals may however be difficult.

Khmer is the medium of state instruction at the primary and secondary levels, making textbook production the largest sector of Khmer-language publishing, albeit one very much bankrolled and influenced by international personnel, and many textbooks are being translated from foreign works or modelled upon them. Reintroduction of English and French as required subjects in the state system – desired by parents – is foreseen by the government. In the meantime, language schools teaching English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Thai, and Korean have sprung up everywhere. A few are subsidized by foreign governments, but most are run by private Cambodian entrepreneurs. There is also a growing number of private ‘international’ schools teaching entirely or predominantly in English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or French, catering to foreign youngsters and the children of the Cambodian elite, whose parents are anxious to send them for further education abroad.

Despite a formal commitment to Khmerization at the tertiary level, use of foreign languages and reliance on international involvement is even more prevalent at the educational summit. Foreign governments, UN agencies, and international NGOs play key roles in curriculum design and even teaching, and many university-level texts are in English or French. There are now the same number of public secular and Buddhist universities as in the Sangkum period, plus two public higher education institutions offering postgraduate degrees. However, since the government author­ized private and public-private universities, higher education has been driven largely by the needs of a market created and dominated by international capital, with highly mixed results in terms of educational quality. By 2005, thirty-one private universities had appeared, and the number of higher education students had shot up to 48,729, the overwhelming majority in private study. There are even more numerous private ‘institutes’, ‘centres’, and ‘colleges’, particularly for business, technical, and computer courses. However, Cambodian degrees generally do not qualify their holders for postgraduate study abroad, either in Asia or elsewhere, even though public higher education requires facility in English or French. Private universities are even more foreign-language oriented. They have many foreign faculty members and run at least some and sometimes most courses in English. This is certain to have a significant impact on the future of higher education, because government plans to have 90,000 students at this level by 2008 foresee that 52,000 will be in private institutions. The habit of reliance on English for intellectual and professional discourse is likely to be further enhanced because many training programmes for Cambodians working in the huge NGO sector are largely or entirely in English.

This is very much related to the limited world of print. Given the paucity of serious journalism in Khmer, especially on sensitive domestic topics, those in search of reasonably reliable, unbiased information instead read the English and French press, while those interested in economic developments rely to a significant extent on the Chinese publications. These sources are also sought after for international news, together with BBC and Radio France International, which transmit via FM in English and French, and television channels from all over the world, available via satellite.

The situation is somewhat different as regards lighter reading, as there is a growing number of glossy magazines in Khmer with articles on pop stars, cars, and computers catering to popular urban youth culture and the beginnings of a middle class. They have bigger circulations than newspapers. A new generation of novelists and poets has also emerged, many publishing their works via newspaper serialization, as well as in popular magazines and book form. However, the most popular Khmer novels by far are those written in the colonial and Sangkum periods, in part because of political limits on what can be published. As for non-fiction and particularly sophisticated academic writing, such intellectually serious Khmer publishing is in some ways at a lower ebb than in the early 1960s and early 1970s, and the general lack of Khmer language publications continues to have severe negative effects on the flow of intellectual knowledge in all fields, including Cambodian history, politics, and culture, as most books on these subjects are written by foreign scholars in English or French and published abroad.

As for translations of foreign texts, with a few recent exceptions, the quality of translation is poor. The standard of Khmer taught in Cambodia’s schools is now so low as to be inadequate to equip Cambodians to write Khmer well, much less translate into it fluently. Moreover, along with re-feudalization in honour of ‘Samdech’ Hun Sen et al. has come a new avalanche of neologisms translating English terms, largely coined following historical practice of relying heavily on Pali-Sanskrit roots and manufactured helter-skelter as Cambodians working for different govern­ment, UN, NGO, and intergovernmental agencies come up with their own ad hoc solutions to vexing translation problems. On top of this, the hegemony of English is such that Khmer syntax is being mangled to conform to English usage. The net effect is not only that some translations are practically unintelligible. A new and widening gap is opening up between the few urban and elite Cambodians who can fathom the new Khmer and ordinary Cambodians who cannot. This deters them from making the effort to read and write books in Khmer and inclines them to read English and other foreign languages instead (Antelme 2004/5). Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the best-selling books in Cambodia are materials for learning and using English. And despite the shoddiness of translation work, translation of English books on business and technical subjects is the most active private book production activity in Cambodia.

It is also not surprising that some Cambodian nationalist intellectuals – surviving and new – see Cambodia as in cultural crisis, suffering from two great ruptures with its traditional heritage, that of the post-Angkorian decline and that following 1970 (Ebihara et al. 1994). The fact is, in contemporary Cambodia, the word ‘traditional’ is often used to refer to practices of the Sihanouk period, with some allusions to those of earlier periods, above all Angkor. In reality, substantive connections to the pre-1950 period are tenuous, due to a lack of written materials and living memories, and even thinner to the pre-colonial period.

There is evidence of a dying out of the rich, earthy Khmer vocabulary of country folk for dealing with their environment (Antelme 2001). The fonts of digitalized Khmer, popularized via freeware accessed by the computer literate, simplify its orthography in ways that cut it off further from its literary past (Antelme 2004/5). In such contemporary works as are being written, there is little reference to the period from 1970 until the end of the century, almost as if it did not happen. Similarly, with regard to Buddhism, although there has been a vibrant revival, there has also arguably been an irreparable institutional and ethical break with colonial and post-colonial religion (Hansen 2003: 109). Some maintain that whereas through the 1960s, a sense of living in a moral community existed in the minds of many Cambodians, the country is now afflicted by ethical paralysis, leaving historical virtue a residual phenomenon. It is under assault by the lures of mindless consumerism, get-rich-quick schemes, rampant corruption, the drug trade, and the sex industry, all of which corrode a government that is thus uninterested in seriously supporting Buddhism as a corrective ethical compass. They note that the traditional Franco-Khmer culture of the colonial period is fast vanishing, and see a trend according to which anything that is seen as old but not deemed to reflect the magnificence of Angkor is considered inferior to the modern (Chy and Prak 2004). Although culture in the form of Angkor is a huge money-maker for the international and semi-governmental tourist industries, broader and deeper cultural preservation is starved for funds (Beng 2003 / 4). The most pessimistic argue that much of what now passes for Cambodian culture has ‘no roots, no substance, no spirit’, because an obsession with money is squelching possibilities for a revival of the creative hybridity of the 1950s and 1960s (Chheng 2001: 112-13).

Nationalist feelings of loss are exacerbated by the return of Chinese-ness and Vietnamese to the Cambodian scene. Since the 1990s, a massive regeneration of Chinese cultural identity has been taking place across the country, with the reemergence of national, local, and dialect-based Chinese associations, schools, temples, circulation of Chinese materials from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, and local publication of Chinese newspapers, newsletters, and magazines. This has been stimulated by an enormous influx of Chinese capital and the key role played by Beijing as a backer and bankroller of the Hun Sen regime and is being enhanced by the arrival in Cambodia of large numbers of Chinese newcomers from China and Taiwan. Surviving local Chinese and Sino-Khmer have been re-Sinicizing themselves and their children on an extraordinarily large scale, though this supplements and does not obliterate the retention of a significant degree of Khmerization resulting from Khmer Republic, CPK, and People’s Republic policies. The resurgent Chinese-ness therefore has a great degree of ethno-linguistic hybridity. Cultural interpenetration facilitates love-match and arranged marriages, especially among the children of the CPP elite and rising Chinese business and commercial families. Along with all this has also come a resurgence of anti- Chinese stereotyping, especially among poor Khmer who see the Chinese as part of a rapacious, aggressive, exploitative, and oppressive juggernaut of power and money.

The contemporary Vietnamese community includes former residents of Cambodia (and their offspring) who returned from Vietnam at some point after 1979, many of whom consider Cambodia their ancestral home and who speak Khmer, plus large numbers of people with no previous connection to Cambodia, many of whom speak little Khmer and flow into Cambodia with CPP collusion. Their presence may be having a re-Vietnamizing impact on those who consider themselves ‘Cambodians of Vietnamese origin’ (Bertrand 1995). Negative Khmer stereotyping of Vietnamese (and vice versa) abounds, even if it is not universal, and intermarriage remains unusual. Popular relations may well be worse than before 1970. In places with concentrations of Vietnamese, Vietnamese schools – some supported by the Vietnamese Embassy – provide a primary education in Vietnamese, although many Vietnamese children also go to Khmer schools, and this creates tendencies toward assimilation. The barrier to this comes from the Khmer side, because for many Khmer, Vietnamese can no more be Cambodian than they can be Khmer, and the notion that only ‘Khmer citizens’ can be Cambodian is enshrined in the Constitution to help prevent assimilation (Leonard 1995).

Even so, Vietnamese – like Chinese – is having a renewed influence on colloquial Khmer, along with English, especially but not only among urban youth. Like the elite, they relish sprinkling their speech with foreign vocabulary, to demonstrate their worldly sophistication.

Less threatening to nationalists but still potentially a source of nationalist concern about a drift towards officially-sanctioned multiculturalism is the situation with regard to uplanders and Cham. International NGOs have launched a process leading to an unprecedented programme of bilingual primary education for uplanders, in which children initially study in their mother tongue before they go on to study Khmer, so that they become literate in both languages. This innovation has been endorsed by Hun Sen, and the government stresses it is in line with constitutional guarantees of multi-ethnic equality. The government has also allowed restoration of Cham and Arabic language teaching and establishment of Qur’anic schools, many of them with international Islamic support.

Cambodian concern to recover, recreate, and reinvent the Cambodian nation through preservation of Khmer culture and tradition and promoting the development and use of Khmer, particularly in literature and scholarly writing, can be seen as a nationalist reaction to the Asianization and globalization of Cambodia, and some Cambodian intellectuals are suspicious of cosmopolitanism. However, foreign involvement in such efforts is not only considerable, it is greater and more multi-faceted than under the French protectorate or Vietnamese projects of the Issarak and PRK periods. Foreign funding and personalities, multilingual Cambodian exiles returning from abroad, and metis Cambodians are crucial to a variety of programmes and institutions dedicated to rescuing and reviving Khmer-ness and Cambodia as a nation. Although not backed by the same military presence and force employed by the French and the Vietnamese, they are embedded in – even if they are sometimes very critical of – the economic power of Asian and world aid, trade, and investment, which is much more penetrative, pervasive, and seductive than troop deployments.

Unlike under the French, however, foreign champions of Khmeritude do not aim to cordon it off from Thailand or Vietnam, but advocate building up cultural and intellec­tual links with these and other Asian countries, as well as the West. They and the Cambodians they support see multilingualism as a must for reviving and disseminating Khmer studies, encourage critical reconsideration of ethnic stereotypes, and tend to call for making Cambodia not into a Khmeria but a Kampuchea, that is, a culturally plural society in which non-Khmer are neither assimilated nor transformed into artificially maintained ethno-linguistic museum pieces. In some ways, this seems like a return to pre-colonial and thus pre-national practices and imaginings of community and in that sense may be more deeply traditional than twentieth-century efforts at constructing and imposing an exclusivist and monolithic Khmer nation. Advocates of persevering in such efforts may be fighting a losing battle, or they may eventually benefit from a nationalist backlash arising out ofthe most recent contradictions inherent in foreign involvement in remaking Cambodia, including the ways in which it both promotes and marginalizes the use of Khmer.


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