People’s Republic of Kampuchea, 1979-1991

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

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

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.7 People’s Republic of Kampuchea, 1979-1991

The CPK’s killing of Cambodians and divisive smashing of the Cambodian nation into murderously hostile splinters opened the way for a more long-lasting and decisive linguistic Khmerization but also destructive polarization of the nation under the auspices of the Vietnamese Communists and Thai army, among other international influences. This situation came about when the CPK provoked a Vietnamese invasion that precipitated the collapse of the DK regime, after which the Vietnamese set up a client regime in Phnom Penh, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), in January 1979.

Although the Vietnamese maintained control of the PRK from behind the scenes, it was under their direction that linguistic Khmerization was definitively carried out in Cambodia (Clayton 2000). The use of Khmer as the language of administration was nearly as complete as under CPK rule, a widespread national school system in which Khmer was virtually the only language of instruction was established for the first time in history, and a significant number of newspapers, magazines, and books were published in Khmer, while virtually nothing was published in other languages.

The PRK constitution of 1981 provided for the development of Khmer as the national language and for a campaign to universalize literacy in Khmer. By the mid- 1980s, primary school enrolment had supposedly once again reached 1969 levels, and the reconstructed primary and secondary school systems were based on an entirely Khmer curriculum, although foreign textbooks and teachers were used in tertiary and technical faculties. A serious problem, however, was quality. With many teachers having been killed or having died under CPK rule, many others having left the country when the Vietnamese took over, and a significant number of those who survived and stayed having taken up other government jobs, the lack of competent teachers available created a major obstacle to achieving progress. This was exacer­bated by poor political morale, as the PRK curriculum was often not to teachers’ liking (Vickery 1986). Quite generally, such a situation in education was symptomatic of the broader problem experienced by the PRK that they and the Vietnamese could not actively promote ‘Khmer culture’ (in teaching materials and elsewhere) without precipitating anti-Vietnamese Khmer nationalism; yet, if they failed to promote it, they made themselves vulnerable to nationalist allegations that they might actually be smothering Khmer-ness, which had the potential to further excite a nationalist reaction.

As a result of these difficulties facing the regrowth of education, there continued to exist fairly widespread illiteracy, despite PRK claims to have achieved 100 per cent literacy in 1990, and informal channels of communication, overwhelmingly oral, remained crucially important. Compared to most of the rest of Asia, certainly, there was – as ever before – little habit of reading in the population at large, due to a lack of printed materials of popular interest.

Nevertheless, the broad move to linguistic Khmerization was an irreversible fact, and one whose triumph was furthered by PRK policies vis-a-vis minorities. Unlike the Khmer Issarak, the PRK presented itself as Kampuchean, not Khmer, and the PRK constitutionally recognized the equality of all nationalities and their right to maintain their languages, literature, and cultures. In practice, there was little or no political discrimination against upland people and Cham. However, like the Sihanouk regime, the PRK expected and encouraged them to learn and speak Khmer and – in a broader sense – to be ‘Khmer’, so their gradual Khmerization continued (Vickery 1986). The PRK policy toward Chinese who had survived Pol Pot’s DK regime, by contrast, was the most hostile of any previous regime except that of DK itself. This followed the Vietnamese Communist attitude of the time. It was justified by reference to Beijing’s support for insurgencies fighting the PRK within Cambodia and to the supposedly upper class and therefore exploitative historical class characteristics of local Chinese. Chinese language instruction continued underground, although fluency in Chinese, spoken and written, continued to drop and Chinese strategies to avoid discrimination led to further intermarriage and assimilation.

Meanwhile, with official Vietnamese encouragement, but over the objections of some senior PRK cadres, perhaps 100,000-250,000 Vietnamese civilians took up residence in Cambodia and came to enjoy protection and favouritism from Vietnam­ese political and military personnel in the PRK (Gottesman 2002). The presence of these Vietnamese returnees and new arrivals had little effect on the overall cultural situation in the PRK (aside from the spread of Vietnamese terms in urban Khmer slang), but gross exaggerations about the size of the Vietnamese presence served to justify nationalist attacks against the PRK government by insurgent forces, including Pol Pot remnant communists, resurgent royalists and former republicans, who jointly insisted in their three different political dialects of Khmer that only liberal democracy and an end to Vietnamese domination would make it possible for there to be real progress in Cambodia.