Cambodia’s New Intellectuals

by Geoffrey Cain

After France granted Cambodia independence in 1953, an impassioned renaissance swept Phnom Penh in the 1960s, a resurgent Angkorian nationalism alongside a potpourri of foreign influences tha included Beatlemania and existentialism. Many saw the city— once called the “Pearl of Asia”—a neutral safe haven from the havoc that rocked neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Artists, writers and scholars frequented Phnom Penh’s beautified universities and cafés, discussing the great works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Picasso, while musicians and dancers revived traditional Khmer styles from the country’s Angkor-era height. Even then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the movement’s figurehead, was a filmmaker and singer who led a jazz band.

Fast forward a few years. Bombing campaigns, military coups and civil war rip the country apart. Intellectuals are targeted and wiped out under the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 and their works​​​ destroyed. A former Khmer Rouge cadre named Hun Sen bullies his way into power in 1993 against United Nations-backed election results, and then orchestrates a coup against his co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranarridh in 1997. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party consolidates power in the media, and rampant corruption rankles the universities. Debate and discussion are left dead and a country is in ruins.

Yet today a brimming young movement of intellectuals resembling those of the 1960s is quietly—and sometimes anonymously— creating change in Cambodia. They mostly draw on the same inspirations and discuss the same topics of culture, politics and romance—the latter remains a highly taboo topic. Some even listen to the same music, writing about the classics of Simon and Garfunkel. Yet unlike their predecessors, these intellectuals do not mingle in French-style cafés and art galleries, but in the new wireless Internet cafés springing up in Phnom Penh.

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