Colonialism 1863-1953

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

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.3 Colonialism, Language, Nationalism, and Political Division, 1863-1953

Given the adverse geo-economic and geo-political circumstances Krong Kampucheatheupatai faced, some personalities in the elite opted in 1863 to accept French protection for their position and the kingdom. They came from the most ‘Siamese’ circles of the royal family, those elements associated with Hue having been eliminated. The Protectorate resulted in a deal for joint French-royal administration with its capital at Phnom Penh, a system which the French gradually subverted to the disadvantage of the traditional elite and developed further with a neo-traditional bilingual elite created from collaborative royals, aristocrats, nobles, interpreters, and hangers on (Tully 2002). The French recognized that a key part of their protectorate project was to transform the Siamese-educated, multilingual Kampuchean monarch from a petty kinglet whose royal ideology required him to be an exemplar of universal cosmic-religious ideals into ‘the living incarnation, the august and supreme personification’ of Cambodian ‘nation­ality’ (Aymonier 1900-1904: 56). However, the French also treated the Royaume du Cambodge as a backwater in a colonial construct that combined it with Vietnam (divided north to south into Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina) and Laos under the overarching administrative structure of Indochina, investing much less in the development of Cambodia than Vietnam. It was thus relatively untouched by the capitalist transform­ations and bureaucratic state-building that more quickly and solidly forged incipiently anti-colonial nation-states in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, even where the raw material was more multi-ethnic and economically less advanced (Dixon 1991).

Meanwhile, the Angkorian temples were portrayed in colonial historiography as evidence that, since the fourteenth century, the Khmer and Cambodia had suffered some extraordinary catastrophe that proved they were either doomed to disappearance or needed rescuing and restoration to avoid extinction. A few French believed their colonialism should finish off the failed Cambodian state and incorporate it into the direct French colony of Cochinchina in southern Vietnam. For many others, French colonialism was seen to be the potential saviour (Edwards 1999).

With both visions in the background, the French imported and employed many Vietnamese to work in the civil service in Cambodia. Accompanied by an influx of Vietnamese artisans, traders, and casual labourers, their numbers rose to perhaps 200,000 in the mid-1930s. Some of these Vietnamese began to see France’s Indochina project as compatible with Vietnamese domination of Cambodia, raising the prospect of a relaunching of Dai Nam’s annexation project. Meanwhile, Vietnamese vocabulary began to seep into Khmer, joining numerous Chinese terms in common usage. However, while Khmer-Chinese intermarriage continued, such liaisons remained rare between Khmer and Vietnamese. Indeed, while the level of anti-Chinese animosity, popular and elite, was lower than perhaps anywhere else in Southeast Asia, anti-Viet­namese feeling seems to have undergone intensification.

Within the boundaries of Cambodia as frozen by French colonialism during the first half-century of its Protectorate, Khmer was spoken quite uniformly. Although local accents existed, the differences were not so great as to generate any recognizable regionalism. Beyond Cambodia’s borders, among Khmer who had been living under non-Khmer rule, differences were larger. Speakers of what came to be known as ‘Khmer Kandal’ (Khmer in the middle, within Cambodia itself) might have difficulty understanding some of the speech of ‘Khmer Kraom’ (‘lowland’ or ‘downriver’ Khmer) living in Vietnamese Cochinchina, and more problems conversing with residents of border areas in Siam/Thailand, who referred to themselves as ‘Khmer Loe’ (upland Khmer).

The opportunity for promoting national unity on the basis of traditional Khmer texts was not grasped by the French, whose general attitude toward Khmer literature was dismissive. The capacity for reading and writing sophisticated Khmer literary works, already confined to a tiny elite, declined rapidly under the French, creating a cultural rupture with the past (Nepote and Khing 1981). Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, very little was being written or recorded and virtually nothing printed in Khmer. Religious and other palm-leaf manuscripts were still produced, many in Khmer but mostly in Pali, and printed materials circulated, but more in French, Vietnamese, and Chinese than in Khmer. Young Buddhist monks still learned the basics of reading and writing Khmer as part of their pagoda studies, but Cambodia as a whole suffered from having less functional literacy in the main local language than probably any other country in mainland Southeast Asia, such a situation extending well into the twentieth century.

Yet, out of all this grew the embryonic imaginings of a nation – which happened more slowly and later than in most of Asia, but happened nevertheless. The crucial shift came in the early twentieth century and gathered pace in the 1920s and 1930s. The growth of a secular elite, colonial patronage of reformist elements in the Buddhist monkhood, the gradual expansion of colonial schools, and the introduction of Khmer print production facilitated the emergence and popularization of a high culture intended for the masses and presented to them as their national culture. This process, however, began in French and was carried forward by French administrators in dialogue with Francophone Khmer. Together, they formulated the concepts of a Khmer or Cambodian ‘nation’, ‘soul’, ‘national character’, and ‘race’, whose place in the world was often defined with reference to the need to catch up intellectually, administratively, economically, and otherwise with Siam and Cochinchina. Those involved in such nationalist promotion produced printed French and Khmer texts intended to tell Cambodians who they were historically and how they could become better Khmer in the future by being more like the Khmer of yore, but simultaneously becoming modern, thus making it possible to restore past glories in new ways. They saw the vernacularization of Khmer as part of this nation-saving and nation-building project, and this was intended to give Cambodia’s nationalism what they called a ‘national language’ and thus a linguistic dimension cordoning it off from Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, although French remained the prime language of government and indeed of nationalist thought. Presiding over all this was King Sisowath, who although not highly proficient in French was in other ways ‘almost a Frenchman’ (Tully 2002: 135). At the same time, he saw himself as a pious Buddhist, and was thus a culturally hybrid embodiment of the emerging nation.

The establishment during the mid-1930s of Cambodia’s first, Francophone lycee, named after King Sisowath, was crucial in reorienting its formative generation of modern intellectuals away from any possibility of seeing themselves as Indochinese and towards considering themselves as the leaders in creating a predominantly Khmer Cambodian nation. The French-founded, Cambodian-staffed Buddhist Institute had the same institutional effect vis-a-vis the Cambodian monkhood, presiding over the pinnacle of Buddhist/Pali schooling that promoted remaking Buddhism as modern and Khmer.

However, while some French colonial officials were fervently promoting ‘Khmeritude’, opening doors for officially approved expressions of Khmer culture, they practised intellectual repression more severe than in other parts of Indochina. Thus, it is not surprising that the first overtly political Khmer-language newspapers, maga­zines, and novels only appeared in the 1930s alongside the tardy beginnings of an organized nationalist movement, whose first leaders were graduates of Lycee Sisowath and staff of the Buddhist Institute (Tully 2002). The founding figures included Son Ngoc Thanh, a Vietnamese-Khmer Kraom metis, and other Khmer Kraom or Sino-Khmer Kraom. The inventiveness of Khmer nationalism is well exemplified by the background of the former: despite his ‘racial’ and cultural hybridity, Son Ngoc Thanh presented himself as more Khmer than the Khmer, someone who knew politically ‘more about what it means to be a Khmer than . . . Khmer born in Khmer-land’ (Nagaravatta, 1937). Similarly, the new Khmer literature that emerged from this time reflected a culture that was socially more rooted in the cosmopolitan Mekong delta, with its Chinese, Vietnamese, and French influences, than the Angkorian realms that it celebrated as the heartland of Khmerness (Nepote and Khing 1981).

This is the paradoxical context in which Cambodian proto-nationalists made one of their key objectives the ‘Khmerization’ of the civil service, and above all the displacement of Vietnamese officials, the latter move being part of a larger process whereby Cambodian nationalism formatively defined Vietnamese as a main Other and denied the possibility that a Vietnamese could also be a Kampuchean (Leonard 1995).

The flagship publication of this movement was the newspaper Nagaravatta (i.e. Nokor Voat or Angkor Wat). With the encouragement of some French believers in Khmeritude, Nagaravatta was able to attack Vietnamese and Chinese ‘domination’ of the civil service and economy, respectively, although Nagaravatta also advocated studying things Vietnamese and Chinese in realms other than language and religion, using what was learned to catch up with other nations (Edwards 1999). The writers of Nagaravatta stressed the need to use Khmer to spread Khmerism among the Khmer, and called for the use of Khmer in education and in official documents. This furthermore coincided with the beginnings of the coinage of neologisms, translating French terms into Khmer as an intended aid to the spread of Khmer through more formal domains of language use. Much of the translation/coinage work was carried out by Buddhist scholars quadrilingual in French, Sanskrit, Pali, and Khmer, and the unfortunate end result was that many of the new vocabulary items turned out to be Pali-Sanskrit jawbreakers, unintelligible to virtually everyone in Cambodia except those who formulated them.

This difficulty was exacerbated by the tiny circulation of print media, as a result of which most people in the countryside simply never encountered the new vocabulary items. Even in urban areas, the neologisms were in fact little used, and those few members of the elite who were familiar with them often preferred to employ the original French expressions. Nevertheless, Khmer print media helped form a new generation of urban students and other readers coming of age as World War II loomed. The French colonial view that only reform could save Cambodia from extinction was recast by these new Cambodians into redemptionist nationalist projects, according to which Khmer/Cambodians themselves would prevent the final demise of the Khmer and Cambodia and relaunch the Cambodians as the people of a glorious nation-state. Importantly, however, the new generation was also politically divided. Most palace and aristocratic youth, including the future King Norodom Sihanouk, saw the Cambodian nation as intrinsically royal and requiring significant Francophonia. They were at odds with those – influenced by the likes of Son Ngoc Thanh – who came to insist it must be anti-colonial, and probably republican, democratic, or socialist.

The divergent streams of Cambodian nationalism emerging in the early 1940s were encouraged by Japanese forces that had established bases in Indochina in 1941, provoked by a fascist turn in French colonial policies and fanned by rumours of French plans to rationalize the increasing use of Khmer by Romanizing it, like the vernacular Vietnam­ese. This brought to the fore the inherent contradiction of French involvement in promotion of the Cambodian nation, which the nationalist elite in Phnom Penh saw as robbing the nation of its history and language. The nationalist opposition faced violence in 1942, when French police attacked a protest against the arrest of a monk accused of plotting a nationalist putsch, a demonstration in which other Buddhist clergy played a prominent role. Several leading monks and nationalists were arrested, and others fled to the countryside or abroad.

Several years later, following the end of World War II, nationalist activists success­fully pressed Sihanouk and the French to institute a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, and themselves formed the new Democrat Party. To the surprise of both Sihanouk and the French, the Democrats then managed to win a series of elections and used parliament as a platform to demand more rapid Khmerization of the bureaucracy, military, and police, that is, the replacement of Vietnamese, French, and aging aristocratic officials with Cambodians of their generation educated in French, as part of a drive for accelerated progress towards full independence. On the other hand, full-fledged linguistic Khmerization was not a burning issue for the Democrat national­ists, not least because their claim to political leadership rested on their status as intellectuals, as proven by their French-language education. Still, this group did show a concern to raise the standard of the Khmer spoken by the Cambodian elite and some wanted to rationalize and popularize (i.e. de-Sanskritize and de-Pali-ize) the language to facilitate this.

In another contemporaneous development, many of the protestors who had fled to Thailand after the demonstrations of 1942 became ‘Khmer Issarak’ (‘Emancipated’ or Free Khmer). This phrase, originally coined by Thai irredentists influenced by Siamese ideas of political freedom, promoted the concept of simultaneous liberation of Khmer from the yoke of White colonialism and from retrograde feudalism. The anti-French, anti-royalist Khmer Issarak movement was launched with covert Thai support and supplemented by assistance and behind-the-scenes direction from Vietnamese commun­ists. It was also backed by a significant number of Vietnamese troops. The three Sino-Khmer Kraom who fronted the organization were Son Ngoc Minh, Tou Samut, and Siev Heng. None of these three spoke French, but all spoke Khmer and Vietnamese, and both Minh and especially Samut were literate in Pali. Led by Samut, they created a new communist Khmer language, translating basic Soviet and Maoist terms into Khmer. Like the neologism-makers in Phnom Penh, they often used Pali or Sanskrit in the coining of Khmer communist terminology. Influenced by Cambodians exposed to Thai Marxism, they also incorporated some Thai-isms into their political lingo. However, they relied much more than those in Phnom Penh on attempts to find colloquial Khmer equivalents for Vietnamese words and tried much harder to avoid unpronounceable and arcane polysyllabic Pali-Sanskritisms, while purging the language of royalisms and other terms marking social hierarchy among speakers. The resulting revolutionary parlance was quite accessible to peasant speakers of Khmer and was popularized with surprising ease and rapidity. In communist-controlled areas of the countryside in what these Issarak officially called ‘Nokor Khmaer’ (rendered ‘Khmeria’ in French), a political dialect of Khmer thus became current. The dialect was spread through the publication of communist Issarak periodicals.

Whether this new language qualified as a nationalist one is problematic, because despite every attempt by the Vietnamese and Khmer Kraom ICP members to deny it, the movement they led was under ultimate Vietnamese direction. Once again, there was a profound contradiction in foreign promotion of a Khmer nation. This time, by introducing and popularizing Khmer national-communist rhetoric, the Vietnamese provided the linguistic vehicle through which Cambodian revolutionaries and radicals could demand full national independence, and such demands soon began to be whispered in Khmer by some in the Cambodian Communist ranks, behind the backs of the Vietnamese (Heder 2004).

A third competing political dialect of Khmer that arose at this time was associated with the republican-leaning ‘Populo-Movement’ (pracheachalana). Like Communist Khmer, it was largely purged of royalisms, but maintained other linguistic markers differentiating persons of high from lower social status. It also maintained most of the elite neologisms coined in Phnom Penh, but had some of its own distinct political terminology.

Thus, political geography came to determine the words that Cambodians would use to signify parallel concepts. For the Franco-aristocratic elite, ‘the people’, for example, were the pracheareas or simply the reas, that is, ‘the subjects’, while for the communist Issarak, they were the pracheachun, the simplest formulation for ‘people’, and for the republicans, they were pracheapularoat, or ‘popular citizens’. In the countryside, peasants became adept at using one word or the other to indicate which warring political side they were on. So, too, did intellectuals who were exposed to all three dialects.

Quite generally, popular acceptance of a Vietnamese-led Khmer communism and the development of rural pockets of communist and anti-communist Issarak-speak reflected the weakness and incoherence of Cambodian nationalism, which in turn was at least in part a result of the continuing lack of nationally penetrative, Phnom Penh-based Khmer- language media. Circulation of Khmer-language newspapers and magazines remained very low – some 3,000 copies for a population of around five million – and was even outnumbered by Chinese publications. The ‘national’ radio station could not be heard in outlying areas and included much French-language programming, and personal radio receivers numbered only in the thousands, making the audience extremely limited. The situation with regard to education was hardly any better. According to probably opti­mistic statistics, a quarter of boys and half that proportion of girls attended primary classes, and these often only finished three elementary years of Khmer-language educa­tion, so functional literacy no doubt soon disappeared. For those few Khmer students who went beyond the third year, French was still the predominant medium. Outside of education, French and Chinese remained the default languages of adminis­tration and business, respectively, alongside Vietnamese.


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