Sangkum Reas Niyum

Language and National Identity in Asia: Cambodia – Sangkum Reas Niyum

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

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.4 The Sangkum Reas Niyum Regime: Royal Official Nationalism and Crisis, 1953-1970

In 1953, France granted independence to a Sihanouk-dominated Cambodian regime. General elections then took place in 1955, but with full control of the bureaucracy and security forces, Sihanouk managed to prevent the opposition from winning a single seat in parliament (Heder 2004). This meant that, in contrast to trajectories of decolonization elsewhere where Asian nationalist movements promoting a national language seized or assumed power, in Cambodia the victors were politicians whose history was one of collaboration with colonialism and whose claim to rule was intimately linked to their fluency in the colonial language.

Many Communists, Democrats, and republicans fled the country, and by the early 1960s, a combination of rigged elections and severe repression made it impossible for those still remaining in Cambodia to publish any political materials. Khmer literary production also stagnated, after an outburst of creativity in the 1950s, as Sihanouk’s regime deeply chilled the intellectual climate. Turgid, state-approved periodicals in royalist Khmer officialese instead dominated national language media. The main language of administrative record-keeping was still French, and most government effort was put into French-language publications praising Sihanouk’s statist economic policies and anti-American diplomacy (Mehta 1997).

This dearth of reading material in Khmer, however, contrasted with rising literacy in Khmer, the product of Sihanouk policies of expanding the national education system at all levels, including setting up Cambodia’s first universities. The Sihanouk regime claimed its various educational efforts managed to raise functional Khmer literacy from 40 per cent in the early 1960s to 60 per cent at the end of the decade. However, such an expansion also lowered the quality of French-language instruction and thus the French fluency of secondary and tertiary school leavers, who further­more often faced unemployment in a stagnating economy.

This was accompanied by a new, but still quite limited expansion in newspaper circulation. As of the mid-1960s, Khmer newspapers had 27,000 subscribers, Chinese newspapers 25,200, Vietnamese 6,000 subscribers, and French also 6,000. Official government-produced political magazines in French had much larger print runs (more than 30,000) than those in Khmer (8,000). Reflecting the continued importance of oral Khmer culture, radio raced ahead of print media as the main form of Khmer- language state communication, and Cambodia had perhaps the highest number of radios per capita in Southeast Asia at the time.

Meanwhile, covert organizing by Communists and republicans continued in the towns and countryside. The Communists and republicans recruited among dissa­tisfied graduates for whom language was increasingly an issue. The latter’s relatively poor education in French meant they thought politically much more in Khmer than the ruling elites, and their educational and socio-political progress was often blocked by failure to pass secondary school examinations set in French. Amidst a broad vogue for modernity manifest in a desire to take forms established elsewhere and reproduce them locally, with national but modern characteristics (Ly and Muan 2001), these young intellectuals struggled against Sihanoukism’s constraints to master what they believed was progressive knowledge and began, literally, to translate this into Khmer, while also calling for the further Khmerization of education. In Phnom Penh, political debate bubbled up in a nascent civil society. Underground Khmer language publica­tions circulated, articulating grievances against the Sihanouk regime from various political perspectives (Heder 2004). At the same time, novel-writing in Khmer began to take off again, and some works of fiction contained trenchant criticisms of problems in Cambodian society, while sophistication through demon­stration of familiarity with Western literature displaying an obsession with modernity, a fascination with past glories, morbid worries about contemporary obstacles to progress, and a propensity to display cosmopolitan and philosophy (Stewart and May 2004). Former Democrat nationalists working from abroad also began reviving the move­ment for expanding and improving Khmer vocabulary without over-reliance on Pali and Sanskrit. Works of martyrs of this movement reappeared as part of an upsurge of opposition to Sihanouk.

Following the occurrence of Communist-supported anti-government rural rebel­lions and student demonstrations in Phnom Penh in 1967, Sihanouk allied with his armed forces chief, Lon Nol, to bloodily suppress all left-leaning political activity. While vigorously attacking the left, however, Sihanouk made common cause with demands for the Khmerization of secondary education, and this began in 1967 under the auspices of a National Committee of Khmerization, which published a glossary providing new or standardized Khmer translations for French terms appearing in textbooks used in the first two years of secondary school. Its policies – reflecting a resurgence of avoidance of Pali and Sanskrit in favour of derivations from Khmer – gave a fillip to the use of Khmer by urban intellectuals. As the leftists were either in prison or hiding in beleaguered Communist guerrilla bases, this worked to the advantage of liberal democratic and republican dissidents, who published Khmer- language texts contributing to the public reactivation of anti-Vietnamese nationalism. However, Sihanouk-Lon Nol repression caused the number of books published to drop by almost half, crushing a tide of creativity that therefore peaked in the mid- 1960s.

This nipping in the bud of Khmer expression was accompanied by an upsurge in Khmerization aimed at minorities. With regard to Cham and upland peoples, the late 1960s saw a major intensification of Sihanouk policies of assimilation that made ‘Khmer’ the designation of citizen identity, officially referring to upland peoples as ‘Khmer Loe’ (a term these people themselves rejected – White 1995) and Cham Muslims as ‘Khmer Islam’, retaining Khmer Kraom as an implicitly irredentist refer­ence to Khmer living in southern Vietnam, and referring to Khmer in Thailand as ‘Khmer Surin’. Policy vis-a-vis Chinese made an even more dramatic U-turn. Previ­ously, the often Sino-Khmer, Francophone elite had allowed Chinese communities to maintain their dialect-based identities, Mandarin schools, and Chinese-ness, but also lowered colonial-era barriers to assimilation, as a result of which the ruling strata became even more Sino-Khmer. However, Sihanouk’s late 1960s turn against the left was accompanied by vociferous public tirades against Chinese schools for being hotbeds of Mao Zedong Thought, which slipped easily into anti-Chinese rhetoric generally (Edwards and Chan). As for Vietnamese, their communities always remained more segregated and distinct, with urban Vietnamese often speaking little Khmer, and more French than Khmer.

In short, by the end of the 1960s, Khmerization of minorities – other than Vietnamese – went hand in hand with Khmerization of state education, but both efforts remained half-way, leaving Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, and upland langu­ages spoken at home by 15 per cent of the population and French the language of higher education and elite political discourse. Although Khmer remained the oral lingua franca for 90 per cent of the people, there was a vast gulf between Khmer as it was enunciated in formal contexts by the urban elite and the ordinary speech of peasants.


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