From the 1st century AD, Peninsular and Insular Southeast Asia has become the setting of a huge Indian influence. Practically, this Hinduisation consisted in new religious systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism, a new conception of the state and the introduction of writing.
The opinions of the specialists differ on the origins of Hinduisation: whether they be the opening of new sea routes, or the necessity to stock up with gold or other motivations.
One thing is sure: one of the earliest Hinduised kingdoms of the region, Funan, was born in the 1st century AD and existed until the 6th century AD.
It is precisely in this period that the South East Asian scripts were born and we can follow their development until today.
More than a century of research showed that the earliest SEA writing systems originated in a South Indian script used to write Sanskrit language.
A Hinduized Phnong
Everything begins by carving Sanskrit inscriptions in SEA and the oldest inscription in the peninsula dates back to the third century AD : The Vo Canh inscription discovered near Nha Trang, now central Vietnam.
In a rather short time this Sanskrit script was used to write three languages spoken in the peninsula: the Mon language spoken at that time in Eastern Burma and in the Central part of what is now Thailand, the Cham language of the kingdom of Champa for which the territory roughly corresponded to what is today Annam and northern coastal Cochinchina in Vietnam and, finally, Khmer language.
The oldest known Khmer inscription was found in Angkor Borei, now in Takeo Province. Angkor Borei may have been one of the capitals of the kingdom of Funan.
The Angkor Borei inscription, listed as K 600, can be exactly dated to the year 611.
The word Phnong, which is the name of the main ethnic group in Mondulkiri province, is also used in Khmer to designate the not so politically correct concept of savage.
When the French scholar Georges Coédès writes that “Khmer is a Hinduised Phnong”, it is not at all a term of abuse, but a striking expression to describe the considerable distance between a tribal way of life and the then Hinduised Khmer world : religion, centralized state and, of course, script.
In the following centuries, comparatively to Cham and Mon languages, Khmer written production can be characterized by an exceptional continuity. Let’s simply consider that we can follow the evolution of Khmer language and writing from the 7th century to the present day without interruption. In short, this amounts to say that Khmer cultural space is an essential key to the understanding of the past on the Southeast Asian peninsula.
Old Khmer and Sanskrit
At this stage, one has to guard against the usual wandering error by being conscious that Khmer does in no way come from Sanskrit, even if as a consequence of Hinduisation, Sanskrit exerted a considerable influence on the lexicon of old Khmer and the neighboring languages.
This deeply rooted prejudice apparently goes back to the first period of the French protectorate. This prejudice may have rooted in the attitude of the first French explorers who were very choked by the contrast between the “great ruins” and the state of decadence of the then Khmer country.
Yet, Georges Groslier was very soon the tireless advocate of the Khmer patrimony: Angkor Vat may well be the greatest Hindu temple in the world, its architectural conception took its roots in Hindu religion, but as a whole the result is nevertheless unfailingly Khmer.
As far as the language is concerned, no one can seriously challenge the fact the contemporary Khmer is directly derived from old Khmer pre-Angkor inscriptions. More than that: an 8th century Khmer text will be, at least partly, understandable to any knowledgeable Cambodian, whereas the Old English version of Beowulf would hardly be understood by modern English speakers?
Cambodian space owns also a fair number of inscriptions in Sanskrit language of which the content is very different from the Khmer inscriptions.
What is at stake in the 2 languages is very different. Sanskrit, as the language of Hinduism, is a vehicle of highly abstract literary, historical and philosophical texts. Sanskrit inscriptions are in no way rooted in the territory where they were carved: without exaggerating, one could say that similar themes can be found in Java, Champa or Cambodia Sanskrit inscriptions.
The situation of Khmer inscriptions is totally different: of a far less degree of abstraction, they are entirely rooted in Cambodian realities: the building of temples, religious foundations and offerings, and as a matter of fact, they present a major interest for reconstructing the history of the Khmer land.
Epigraphy as a profession
Everything began in the end of the 19th century. What was then at stake was to construct the framework of a Khmer culture and the history of Cambodia.
The Angkor temples forest may talk to the esthete, not to the historian. The latter’s requirements consist in interpreting, dating, reconstructing, explaining sequences of events and for all that, texts are needed.
There exist of course many travellers’ accounts, generally Chinese, which are very valuable sources full of precious information, but the inscriptions were to play the decisive part to reconstruct Cambodian ancient history.
A fantastic adventure followed where researchers like Louis Finot, Etienne Aymonier, Au Chieng and Georges Coédès won fame.
Georges Coédès published in Hanoi in 1937 the first volume “Inscriptions of Cambodia” which was eventually followed by six other volumes published in France, the last one in 1966.
The Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) was to play a key part in this adventure and its journal (BEFEO) began publishing, translating and commenting on inscriptions as early as 1904.
An endless activity
Cambodian inscriptions make you feel dizzy: new inscriptions are still regularly found and they are very far from having been translated and commented upon.
The implications of this fact are obvious: Cambodian general history may well be known, but there remain very many obscure points which will only be made clear when the inscriptions are deciphered. Thus there is a strong chance that a book about pre-Angkor or Angkor Cambodia written 20 years ago may be simply refuted by the discovery or the deciphering of an inscription.
This has already been the case for a classic of its kind like Georges Coédès’ “History of hinduized kingdoms” or Laurence Briggs’ “The Khmer Empire”.
During the meeting dedicated in 1999 to Georges Coédès in Bangkok, Michael Vickery, the author of the most recent and comprehensive survey about Pre-Angkor Cambodia “Society, Politics and Economics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia”, declared abruptly but not without reason that: “To study nowadays Cambodian history with Coédès would amount to do geography with Ptolemy”.
The historical aspect of epigraphy is one well established thing, but the inscriptions were sometimes going to play another part.
The content of an inscription (temple, foundation, offerings...) is one thing, the nation-states’ later political use of the inscriptions is something else. The principle is as old as the world and could be summed up as follow: “I was here before you” and for that, there is nothing better than the perpetuity of the inscriptions.
An epigraphic western: The Ramkhamhaeng case
In 1834, Mongkut, a Buddhist monk discovered an inscription that, according to him, had been carved in 1292.
The inscription being written with letters very much like modern Thai letters, it was immediately considered as the first text ever written in the Thai language and not by just anybody but by the king Ramkhamhaeng himself, who became de facto the inventor of the Thai script. From then on, the inscription was named after him.
Till then the very existence of this king was not too clear and he was even considered as legendary. Even today we are not entirely sure about the time of his birth or death: 1279 – 1298 or 1239? – 1298 or 1239 – 1317... Well, we are not going to quibble about such insignificant details. Didn’t a good old religious tradition teach us that to make a saint from someone it’s better to wait for his death to avoid further disappointments, and it is even better that he had never existed.
Mongkut’s story didn’t stop there as he became the king Rama IV and ruled over the kingdom of Siam from 1851 to 1868.
It’s under his rule that the Ramkhamhaeng became a major element of the Thai national patrimony.
For the history of writing which has the arduous task to reconstruct the conditions of the evolution of the various scripts, the influences and the borrowings, the Ramkahmhaeng is an incredible challenge: the only case when a very much developed script literally came out of nothingness, nothing before, nothing after!
The problems begin
In 1986, one of the most famous Thailand art critics, Piriya Krairiksh, put forward the opinion that the inscription, according to him carved by Mongkut – Rama IV himself, only dated back to the 19th century.
Michael Vickery, whose greatest quality is certainly not mercy, followed close behind him in the 1987 Canberra conference on Thai studies, did it again in a 1989 article and, in 1991, he summarized his major points which were to be published in a 1995 issue of The Journal of the Siam Society.
His article is based on a very deep analysis of the language, script and context: the context of the Ramkhamhaeng is not 13th century Sukhotai and the question to know if this script could have been invented by a genial king is at best meaningless: “There are certain questions and criticism which I shall not attempt to answer, and which I think are unanswerable, not because they are weighty, but because they are outside the realm of scientific discourse within which historians and linguists must work. For example, I shall make no attempt to counter arguments of the type, "why couldn't a great genius, such as 'Ram Khamhaeng' devise from nothing a perfect writing system?" This question is unanswerable. We cannot say in a scientifically provable way that a great genius could not have done that, but all we know about the development of such cultural items suggests that if not impossible, it is extremely improbable”, Vickery wrote.
Till then, the polemics had been restricted to academic discussions summed up by John Chamberlain’s book “The Ramkhamhaeng controversy” which was published in 1991.
Academic discussions of this kind may allow expressing reservations, but they will never result in a total calling into question.
That would be an incredible loss of face: one would have to rewrite the parts of historical books where it is told about the Ramkhamhaeng, to take out of the Thai language handbooks the sentence according to which “modern Thai script dates back to 1292 and was invented by king Ramkhamhaeng”, without talking about the traditional universally celebrated Gelb’s and Février’s handbooks about the history of writing. The icing on the cake would be to expose the trick of Rama IV’s, a revered king.
An American academic offered a pedagogical example: “imagine that tomorrow we are told that our constitution is a fake”.
Things could have only got that far, but something else was to happen.
In 2003, The Ramkhamhaeng was submitted by the Thai government for the registration on the world patrimony list.
This had many consequences such as total dissociation between the decision of the Thai government taken on purely political grounds and the choice of many Thai intellectual not to overlook the debate.
The debate is highly interesting because it teaches a lot about the maturity of Thai academic.
The Preah Vihear affair revealed a Thailand that yielded in to xenophobic temptation. Here, there is nothing of the kind because the demarcation line is between Thai.
The authentic of the Ramkhamhaeng is not essential. But there is a strong uneasiness resulting from the will to conclude politically the discussion about a rather doubtful case.
Thai academics’ pride has been deeply hurt when for instance the politician Boworsak Uwanno accused them to “destroy national unity” just because they put forward doubts about the authenticity of the inscription.
It is precisely this kind of uneasiness that Mukhom Wongtes analyzed in her excellent book: “Intellectual Might and National Myth: A Forensic Investigation of the Ram Khamhaeng Controversy in Thai Society”, it is a remarkable indictment of the Thai political community meddling tendency and the necessity for the intellectual to keep its independence.
For more than a century, Angkor Wat has been beyond any reasonable doubt equated with the quintessence of Cambodian culture.
In September 1862, when Cambodia was not yet under the French protectorate rule, Admiral Bonnard went to Udong at that time King Norodom I’s capital and then to Siem Reap. This was the first time that a high ranking French official wrote a report on the famous ruins that we now know as Angkor.
Bonnard wrote: “Legend, history and religion of this vanished people are here, showed to the eyes of the skeptic who won’t be able anymore to deny that today’s poverty-stricken Cambodia could once and can still feed a great artistic and industrious people”.
What has to be remembered from Bonnard’s words are: the vanished people, the poverty-stricken Cambodia and the great artistic people. The next coming Angkorian adventure was already in embryo.
At that time, as France intended to extend its influence in the region far beyond its small Cochinchina colony, the Protectorate regime (1863 - 1953) over Cambodia was soon going to be a reality.
A few months later, it was Admiral de la Grandière’s turn to come to Siem Reap. Admiral de la Grandière was the military Governor of Cochinchina (the first French colony in the Far East). That was the opportunity used to first officialize the “great ruins.” It has to be noted that the Angkor temples were still at that time on Siamese territory and were only going to be retro-ceded to Cambodia in 1907. De La Grandière quietly visited the ruins as if they were part of Cambodian territory.
Anecdotally, the French journalist from the newspaper Le Courrier de Saigon made confusion in understanding “mines” instead of “ruins”(the 2 words rhyme in French). A biting answer was to come from a Singapore English language newspaper which worried about the French ambitions in such a rich region. This was all the more surprising since there never were any mineral mines in the region! In any case the pitch was given once for all.
For the highest glory of Angkor
After the 15th century in Cambodia, if Angkor was considered by the Khmers living in its neighborhood as an important religious site, it was certainly not viewed as a symbol of national pride.
Almost immediately after the establishment of the protectorate regime (1863 - 1953), Angkor was to epitomize the official vision of Cambodian history as stated, for example, by Penny Edwards, “Angkor was remade as both the embodiment of Khmer national essence and an irretrievable, unachievable, and impossible moment of cultural perfection”.
For the French protectorate, what was at stake was no less than providing the Kingdom of Cambodia with a new ideological structure of which Angkor Wat would be the key element.
From then on, Cambodian history would have to consist of a two-part narrative: past glory and present decay: Angkor Wat as the symbol of greatness par excellence and decadence.
The French Protectorate for its part was only too eager in volunteering to help Cambodia recover its ancient greatness. Without oversimplifying, the deal may be expressed in the following way: Angkor Wat is the proof Cambodia had a once glorious history followed by a terrible decline. The French Protectorate was there to help Cambodians recover their past glory. The proof may be seen in the fact that France rediscovered Angkor Wat and was restoring it.
Everything was planned and not even the smallest detail was neglected. For instance the “discoverer” of Angkor was in reality father Bouillevaux around 1850, at least 10 years before Henri Mouhot. Bouillevaux even published about Angkor in 1858 his “Voyage dans l’indochine 1848 – 1856”. Unfortunately, Father Bouillevaux was not such an exciting writer and his writing did not come easy. Bouillevaux was invited by the French Superior Resident and was politely but firmly asked to forget his “discovery”. From then on, Angkor would officially have been discovered by Mouhot.
The colonial exhibitions of Marseille (1924) and Paris (1931) played considerable parts and according to Penny Edwards: “In addition to proclaiming France’s dominance in Indochina, and the vigor and valor of France’s conservation efforts vis-à-vis the stasis of indigenous races, Angkor acted as a crucial signifier of Khmer difference. France’s projection of Angkor Vat as the key emblem of Indochina fostered Khmer national pride and aroused Vietnamese indignation”
And it worked beyond all expectations. For more than a century, Angkor Wat has been beyond any reasonable doubt equated with the quintessence of Cambodian culture. All the Cambodian regimes that followed independence from France in 1953 tried hard to defined adequate stylized representations of Angkor Wat on their various flags, not to mention the Khmer Rouge who went even further by mentioning Angkor Wat in their national Anthem. The same way colonial ideology depicted Cambodian history was adopted by Khmer nationalist scholars of the Buddhist Institute and the newspaper Nagaravatta in the 1930s without the slightest hesitation and this common representation of Cambodia in greatness and decline still plays the part of a prerequisite to any discussion about Cambodian history to this day.
Behind the mythical towers: Cambodian history
The chronology of Cambodian history itself is more a chrono-ideology with a pivotal role offered to Angkor. Thus we have a history-writing syndrome in which Angkor is seen in its relation to pre-Angkor and post-Angkor. The result is often comical: in many books, the pre and post Angkorian periods consist of only a few pages, while the core of the book is of course about Angkor. An example taken at random comes from the book “Les Khmers” (The Khmers) by Bruno Dagens. “Les Khmers” is in fact an interesting and well documented introduction to Angkor, but not to the Khmer people. As we close the book we wonder if there were Khmers before and after Angkor.
Cambodian people need history; they don’t need to hear that they belong to a people who were once great, but by a strange law of nature, were afterwards reduced to decadence. This tendency to reduce Cambodian history to a series of Angkorian certainties really weakens not only Cambodian history, but also its teaching and the lessons which could be learnt from it.
As an ethnic group, the Khmers didn’t wait for Angkor to exist, but they are amongst the first inhabitants of the Southeast Asian Peninsula. If we analyze the current ethno-linguistic map of Peninsular South East Asia, we can notice one essential fact: the various languages pertaining to the Austro Asiatic linguistic group, of which Khmer is a major member, display a compact distribution from South Yunnan to Central Malaysia and from Eastern India to the South China Sea.
On the other side the presence of the other ethno linguistic components in the area can be dated to around the 8th century BC for the Cham and around the 10th century AD for the Thai. The data indicates that the Khmer were amongst the first to be here.
To this fact should be added another one. The Khmer language exerted an incredible influence on the neighboring languages. For instance, according to Professor Varasarin a considerable part of the modern Thai lexicon comes from Khmer. She could extract more than 2,500 words and classify them into 200 semantic categories. It shows that almost all the fields of the Thai lexicon were influenced by Khmer language. Other more distant languages are also stuffed with Khmer words, amongst others Nyah Kur, a Mon language spoken in what is today Central Eastern Thailand. Another example is Thavung, an Austro Asiatic language spoken in Northeast Laos.
A language doesn’t borrow words for the mere sake of borrowing them, but techniques were borrowed along with the words and this mere fact reveals the influence Khmer civilization exerted in the peninsula.
Even the question of the language spoken in the Kingdom of Funan (1st – 7th century AD) or the very nature of that civilization is but too obvious. This is a part of Khmer national heritage that should not be overlooked at a time when history has been mobilized in the region to back the most questionable thesis.
From swaying to valuing hieratic quality
Angkor is but one moment of the Khmer civilization. To be convinced of it, you just need to indulge yourself with a little visit of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The building itself is not entirely Angkorian. Georges Groslier, who completed it in 1920 based its architecture on the combination of two stylistic conceptions: the base is definitely Angkorian, that is heaviness, square columns, whereas the top intended to make use of Buddhist motives, just like the ones we can find on the roof of any Theravada Buddhist pagodas. The result is astonishing as this pagoda-style roof lightens the whole structure and provides it with the impression of floating. The museum was built to shelter the innumerable objects of art because Cambodia is by far the most important archeological site of the region. These objects of art were found continuously almost everywhere in the country. But the decision to build the National Museum was finally taken after the March, 1907 treaty when Siam retro-ceded Siem Reap Province with all the Angkor temples, to Cambodia.
Most of the visitors, Khmer or foreigners know Angkor and are, for the most part, prone to associate Khmer civilization with Angkor. However, you get a big surprise when you realize that the differences between the statues that were carved before and after 802 AD.
Statues in Phnom Da from the second half of the sixth century and those of Isanapura, also known as Sambor Prey Kuk, 615 – 635 stand in stark contrast with the first statues of Vishnu sculpted after the capital had been transferred to the Angkor region by King Jayavarman II in 802 AD.
Phnom Da and Sambor Prey Kuk displayed a set of very human characters with a very refined and precise anatomical conception. They all express motion and allow a dynamic investing of the surrounding space. One fundamental aspect is the swaying at the level of the hips, to the right or to the left, because it allows drawing a diagonal line to which corresponds the orientation of the other parts of the body: feet, knees, shoulders and head, somewhat like the part the chiasmus played in Greek sculpture
This stands in contrast with what happens to Khmer statues by the beginning of the 9th century. The swaying is henceforth a mere formal feature reduced to the hips and no longer contributes to the general structure of the statue. These statues are characterized by stiffness: no more anatomical precision, no more motion.
Ironically, Western art followed just the opposite path: from hieratic stiffness to the expression of life and motion.
The reasons for these considerable variations in time are numerous: the fact has been often evoked that the statuary is the most politically sensitive part of Khmer art. The carving of stiffer statues often corresponds with a political tendency to centralize power. The problem does not lie in what should be preferred; it is a mere question of taste and there is no universally acknowledged objective way of analyzing artistic quality.
The problem lies elsewhere: more than two centuries before the capital settled in the Angkor region, the artists of two Cambodian kingdoms, in the South and in the Northwest, were able to give birth to statues of an almost unrivaled quality in Southeast Asia.
Again and again, it appears that there is more than one door leading to Khmer civilization.
The unity of Angkor
In a somewhat popular approach to Khmer history, the term unity has acquired a considerable importance as the Angkorian period is very often presented by Khmer people as the time of unity par excellence.
That time is very seriously seen as a kind of lost paradise yet untarnished by personal rivalries, where the common good was supposed to prevail over the tyranny of individual ambitions.
Every culture generates its own mythology and, as we all know, the myths are always hard to die.
Instead of talking of unity between people, we may seriously question the accuracy of the unity of the so called Angkorian period.
Angkorian time or Angkorian Empire is a general term used to talk about the period between 802 AD, the time Jayavarman II settled his capital in the Angkor region, and 1431, the time when the kingdom was invaded by the Siamese army and the king Ponhea Yat fled westward to settle his new capital.
During this period of more than six centuries there were as many changes as there were between the so called Angkorian period and the pre 802 or post 1431 periods.
The only expression of unity pertained to geography: the Angkor region where the capitals stood during this period. This assertion can even be further challenged if we consider that Koh Ker, Jayavarman IV’s capital from 930 to 944 AD, was located at more than 80 miles from the current town of Siem Reap.
It is for instance impossible to reduce to unity the remarkable diversity of styles in the Angkor region: let’s think that in the 10th century, only 23 years separate the gigantism of Koh Ker pyramid from the intimacy of Banteay Srey.
One big problem is about the reign of Jayavarman VII. This king has an uncommon proclivity to controversy.
One of his best known statues represents a bare forehead, a broad and opened face with the eyes reduced to the line of the eyelids: an overall equilibrium and harmony which suggest quietness and inner joy. That would make us easily forget that Jayavarman VII was one of the most formidable conquerors and that under his reign the Khmer Empire reached its greatest dimensions.
An essential event occurred in 1177. The Cham fleet sailed up the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap and the Siem Reap River, the Cham troops landed, attacked and plundered Angkor. The reaction was very quick. The future Jayavarman VII counter-attacked, defeated the Cham invaders and was crowned as king in 1181.
From the time he was crowned, Mahayana Buddhism became the official religion of the Khmer Empire. Beside the numerous statues of the Buddha meditating on the Naga, at the same time statues of the former Hindu gods were erected. Thus, with the shift from Hinduism to Buddhism, the axis of the world was no longer Angkor Wat but had also shifted to Bayon.
This has to be explained and we had no difficulty to find a version of the standard explanation in M. Giteau’s “Histoire d’Angkor”: “By seizing Angkor, the Cham had brought the proof that the town was not invulnerable, even if it was an earthly representation of the divine world. There was therefore a necessity to find a superior protection”.
Such a consideration preserves the thesis of unity: well it went wrong, so let’s find another religion which could act as a better shelter and let’s go on.
The reality is certainly something else.
On the one side, if Hinduism had been till then the official religion of the empire, there are many doubts to express about its ascendancy on the people because it had no real clergy. Everything indicates that the people’s religion had for many years been Mahayana Buddhism.
Moreover, at the end of the 12th century, the population of Angkor is estimated to have reached a million and such a concentration of people presupposes the emergence of various social needs the Hindu religion would have certainly not been able to fulfill. In any case, it is difficult to keep the thesis of unity between a power system and the people.
The most fascinating thing is that numerous authors couldn’t and still can’t admit that a totally new conception was at work. It is incredible to read what Maurice Glaize wrote about the Bayon: “The Bayon is the only temple to have two concentric galleries sculpted with bas-reliefs; the internal gallery is complete in its ornamentation and was almost exclusively reserved for mythological subjects of Brahmanic inspiration, while the outer gallery, accessible to the mass of the faithful, was dedicated both to scenes of everyday life and to certain historic episodes processions and battles - from the reign of Jayavarman VII”.
We would be very pleased to know where exactly are the “mythological subjects of Brahmanic inspiration.” Glaize, and he is far from being alone, acts as if it was impossible to escape from the hypnotic power of Angkor Wat Hinduism.
The most comprehensive and fascinating survey of the internal gallery of the Bayon has been realized by Ms Phalika Ngin and is available on her website www,phalikan.com or will be soon available in her book: “The Ancient Secrets of the Royal Triad Decoded”.
Angkor as myth; Angkor as history
Angkor Wat is an architectural masterpiece of harmony and the biggest Hindu temple in the world, India included.
More than that, the very notion of a mountain temple is based on Hindu conceptions, but the mountain temples were only materialized in Cambodia: Angkor Wat and Baphuon and not in India. Bruno Dagens had noted earlier that if the iconographic program is Indian, its translation into reality is Khmer and for that reason “Khmer temples are more Indian than Indian temples.”
On the other side, between the Indian iconography and the Khmer artist’s chisel there is a considerable distance which may explain that even in the earliest statues, the representation of Vishnu’s or Shiva’s face is very remote from the Indian codes.
The question of religion is equally important. Khmer civilization is the only one in peninsular Southeast Asia to have sequentially experienced Hinduism, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism as state religions and to have integrated them in a more popular religious approach.
This leads us to an essential consideration: Khmer civilization is not transcended by Angkor in general or Angkor Wat in particular.
On the contrary, Angkor is but one moment of this cultural adventure which existed before 802 and did not stop existing in 1431.
It would be high time to construct a Cambodian history which would pay homage to the extraordinary richness and diversity of the Khmer land.
Of the 15 films Norodom Sihanouk directed during his life, the one titled “an Ambition Reduced to Ashes” (1995) reveals the most insight into the king father’s own view of himself and his legacy.
The film tells the story of a young prince who has been educated by a guru and master who takes particular care that the young prince should ascend the throne one day and become the equal of the greatest Cambodian kings, including King Jayavarman VII.
In the film, the prince is only partly human: he is also of divine essence.
As a future God-King he is advised to stay far apart from the humans. The only problem is that through the love expresses towards a peasant girl in the countryside. He is tempted to become a human being even though this would prevent him from being incarnated into a great king.
The guru tried to intervene and explains to the young girl that if she and the young prince make physical love, the young prince’s real age would appear, his body would be reduced to ashes and his real mission to become the greatest king of Cambodia would never be fulfilled.
The young prince, unable to resist her beauty, finally makes physical love with the young girl. At the end of the night the young prince’s body transforms into that of a very old man reduced to smoking ashes, and dies.
Norodom Sihanouk’s idea behind the movie was to illustrate the conflict between God-nature and human nature, between pleasure and duty.
In this movie, just like in the other movies he shot, Sihanouk is obviously looking at himself and analyzing himself. Through this personal psychoanalysis he sees himself as someone who has been destined to the greatest ambition, but who in some but in some sense could not fulfill it.
Sihanouk had no illusion about himself, but the character is entirely out of common:
He was crowned in 1941 and he abdicated in 1955 to get into politics. According to the Cambodian Constitution he had no right to get into politics. He gave up the throne to become the head of the state untill March 18 1970 Coup d’état, when Lon Nol took the power.
That was not the end of Sihanouk. He was re crowned again in 1993 and in 2003 he retired, this is really unique and there is not another king in the world who could have performed so many political deaths and renaissance.
Sihanouk had many lives in one life. His life can be compared to a stage where he sometimes simultaneously played many parts: King, Statesman, filmmaker, writer, musical composer, epicurean...
It is difficult indeed to put together all of the aspects of the personality of Sihanouk, hence the use of the word paradox may appear to be of some relevance. One thing is sure: as an outstanding politician and statesman, he put himself passionately at the service of Cambodia and would interfere in the most tragic way in the decisive periods of modern Cambodia.
The very cute boy
King Monivong died on April 23, 1941. The crown council then selected Prince Norodom Sihanouk as King of Cambodia which was rule at the time by France’s Vichy regime.
All this begins like a fairy tale. Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne in September 1941. The Cambodian monarchy is not a hereditary monarchy. This implies that the king is not compulsorily the son of the preceding king. On the contrary the Cambodian monarchy is an elected monarchy. The king is chosen and elected amongst numerous princes, generally from the Norodom or Sisowath families by the Royal Council of the Crown.
It is not exaggerated to say that the Royal Council of the Crown is an instrument in the hands of the real political power. So, In 1941 when Norodom Sihanouk became the king, the question: Why was Sihanouk chosen? could be equivalent to asking: why did the French want Sihanouk to be the king?
As a joke, the general governor of Indochina, Admiral Decoux’s wife said “because he was a very cute boy”.
Obviously for Admiral Decoux, the general governor of Indochina himself, what was at stake was not Sihanouk’s cuteness, but Sihanouk was also for him the perfect candidate. Sihanouk loved enjoying himself: cars, sports, parties, dancing... Sihanouk was smart enough to persuade the French that he wasn’t really interested at all in politics.
That is the reason why the French chose him: because they believed that he wasn’t interested in power. Once more in history, the old illusion “He’ll do what we want him to do” revealed an incredible political blindness.
Later on Sihanouk wrote about this period of his life when he was chosen to become the King: “My first reaction was of fear, of fright, I broke into tears”.
Sihanouk showed for the first time his incredible ability to wait and his outstanding talent to take the opportunity when it arises.
The Japanese and the independence
The French were soon to discover their mistake. In March 11 1945, under the pressure of the Japanese troops, Sihanouk abrogated the 1863 and 1884 French protectorate treatises and de facto proclaimed the independence of Cambodia.
There was a fly in the ointment as the Japanese had imposed Son Ngoc Than as a prime Minister. Son Ngoc Than was a very popular personality who had to go into exile to Tokyo in 1942 after having organized anti French demonstrations in Phnom Penh in July 1942.
In theory, the French collaborationist Vichy regime and Japan were allies and as such the Japanese troops could have entered French Indochina without toil, but the relationships between French and Japanese were mainly based on mutual distrust: French Indochina could not fit the vision japan had of South East Asia as a part of greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere and the choice of a radical nationalist like Son Ngoc Than was much more convenient for the Japanese than the somewhat ambiguous Sihanouk.
The opposition between the 2 men deserves a thorough attention as it is a highly relevant line of interpretation of the Cambodian politics at least from 1945 to 1993.
On the one side an ideologist whose will consists in translating his project into reality at any cost, on the other side a pragmatist who knows that he shouldn’t indulge in wishful thinking. In short, Norodom Sihanouk was no less nationalist than Son Ngoc Than; the difference between the 2 men lies elsewhere: in the ability to think within the realms of possibility.
Sihanouk knew very well that the time was not ripe for independence as he understood the international situation to a much greater degree than Son Ngoc Than. The following events proved that Sihanouk had been correct.
In 1946 the French returned, placed Son Ngoc Than under arrest and exiled him in France. Sihanouk, meanwhile, was confirmed in his functions. On the one side, Sihanouk was clean as he had abrogated the protectorate treaties under the influence of the Japanese. On the other side, Sihanouk had only been the willing victim of the Japanese and his often denials were another paradoxical way to make it clear that March 11 1945 events were but a final rehearsal.
Sihanouk spent the next years from 1946 to 1952 asking for French concessions and began pleading for Cambodia’s independence. At that time independence was within arm’s reach: the 1st Indochinese conflict had begun in what is today Vietnam.
In Cambodia the situation was characterized by a growing unrest due to Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) nationalist uprising and the communist Party of Indochina. The Democratic Party like the latters had the total independence of Cambodia as a major part in his program.
The question which remained was: who would get the independence? That question was a decisive one for the future of Cambodia. Once more, Sihanouk was to play the major role. In 1951, thanks to Sihanouk’s intercession, his old enemy Son Ngoc Than was released by the French and returned to Cambodia. At that time the stakes were high because Son Ngoc Thanh’s radicalism appeared as very convincing to a big part of the Cambodian population and he was a major obstacle for Sihanouk. The game which followed is a 3-act masterpiece directed by Sihanouk who displayed once more all his talent:
- He invited Son Ngoc Thanh to negotiate with him. For a radical who built his life on a zero concession principle, negotiation is in essence a dangerous game.
- As Sihanouk didn’t offer him a prominent place, a disappointed Son Ngoc Thanh took the bush and rejoined the Khmer Issarak in February 1952. Sihanouk appeared then to the world as the only peaceful solution.
- In June 1952, as he had to beat the Khmer Issarak by the nose, he launched the Royal Crusade to Independence and went to Paris, Washington, Bangkok with a message “Negotiate with me now”.
The French were wise enough to listen to him and Cambodia became an independent state on November 9, 1953. The independence was recognized internationally in July 1954 Geneva conference.
Again Sihanouk proved to be a chess player of a superior level who was several moves in advance on his adversaries.
Sihanouk was the father of Independence, but that was not enough. Sihanouk was a king in a constitutional monarchy where a king is supposed to reign quietly and not to govern. In short, in a parliamentary monarchy the King is the symbol of power, the king does not exert power.
Knowing someone like Sihanouk, one could not imagine that he would be ready to be present at the unveilings of primary schools and to be offered bunches of flowers. Sihanouk wanted to govern. Of course, it would be ridiculous to thing that he wanted power for power: Sihanouk had a vision, the service to which power should be applied.
Sangkum Reastr Niyum (1955 - 1970), Sihanouk’s vision of modernity
Sihanouk had to devise a solution which is amazing like most episodes of Sihanouk’s life. On February 27 1955, he abdicated in favor of his father Suramarit. After he had abdicated, now a simple citizen, Sihanouk launched his Sangkum Reastr Niyum, often translated as Popular Socialist Community, an impressive mixture of nationalism, neutralism, socialism, Buddhism...
It was not really a political party: it was a place where all the real strength of the nation had to meet to build Cambodia’s future.
The candidates of the SRN were then triumphantly elected in 1955 (83% of the votes), and this regime is absolutely essential in order to understand modern Cambodia. Sihanouk was then 33 years old.
As soon as he got the power, Sihanouk displayed his greatest abilities of a politician, builder and architect. A major point was the Bandoeng conference where Sihanouk joined the non-alignment and showed signs of rapprochement with socialist countries. At home, this policy deprived his left-wing adversaries of a trump card as they had no other solution than to create a support committee of Sihanouk’s neutralist policy.
He transformed this country into a huge building site. People can still notice today the new Cambodian architecture in Phnom Penh and in all the provincial capitals.
[caption id="attachment_1114" align="img-center" width="300"] Building a new Cambodia foreground the apartments for the personnel of the national bank, now the Russian embassy, on the right the Olympic village apartments, on the left the building[/caption]
He took particular care in developing areas that had been neglected under French rule like Kampot for instance.
The building of Sihanoukville harbor reveals his strong will of independence. At the time of the French protectorate, the entrance and exit door of Cambodia was Saigon: all the goods imported into Cambodia or exported from Cambodia had to be transported through the French colony of Cochinchina.
After the independence, Sihanouk could not tolerate any more to have his Cambodian boats controlled by the Vietnamese authority: Cambodia’s exit and entrance door should be inside the Cambodian territory and in the early 60s the Sihanoukville harbor was built.
His vision of power had a lot to do with architecture. What Sihanouk wanted for his country could be summed up in one word: Modernity. For 90 years, the French protectorate rule had clipped the prerogatives of the Cambodian monarch. Even if kings like Sisovath (1904 - 1927) or Monivong (1927 - 1941) were revered like gods by their subject, the reality of the power was in the residence and not in the Royal palace.
Far from the small provincial capital he inherited from the French, Sihanouk wanted a new architecture for a new vision of power in Cambodia. All the buildings we can still see in Phnom Penh are evidence for this appetite of modernity.
[caption id="attachment_1112" align="img-center" width="300"] Architecture and education the library of the teachers' training college the complex designed by Vann Molyvann was unveiled in 1972 Now the Institute of Foreign languages[/caption]
These buildings are here to remind us that Cambodia was the only country in Southeast Asia with a modern and beautifully functional architecture, far exceeding the other Southeast Asian countries architecture.
In order to play the delicate diplomatic screenplay which was of course a major challenge during the second Indochinese conflict what we know as the Vietnam War, Sihanouk had to compose with the communist powers, with the western powers as well.
The cold war and Cambodia
Sihanouk was not an ideologist in the sense of the cold war. Sihanouk had the task to preserve the independence and the sovereignty of Cambodia and he chose his friends where he could. He often compared Cambodia to the ant in the middle of the elephants’ fight: the ant had to stay at a reasonable distance from the elephants and to try to persuade them to go fight somewhere else.
Sihanouk had to face several attempts of coup d’état like Sam Sary and Dap Chhuon(1959) where the involvement of the CIA together with the Thai and the republic of Vietnam is beyond doubts.
During the late 60s as the Vietnam War was raging, and it was more and more uneasy for Sihanouk to preserve his neutrality. French President Charles De Gaulle had supported him with his huge speech in the Olympic stadium. For De Gaulle, Sihanouk was the only person able to handle that very difficult situation. The situation was indeed difficult and Cambodia’s neutrality was threatened by the very existence of the Ho Chi Minh trail which went through an important section of Cambodian territory and Vietcong units were using Cambodia as a sanctuary. What could Sihanouk have done? He was aware of the situation and, contrary to his Cambodian right wing, he had already understood that a military solution was totally unrealistic: only through negotiation could a solution emerge. Again and again, Sihanouk can be credited with a deep intelligence of the situation and this is all the more obvious in the light of the events which followed.
As Sihanouk went to France for a holiday in 1970, on March 18 Sihanouk’s right wing government in Phnom Penh, staged a coup d’état. The circumstances in which the coup was performed are still not entirely clear especially about the degree of US involvement. One thing is sure: as the US were contemplating to withdraw their ground troops from South Vietnam, it is difficult to imagine them masterminding a coup d’état in Cambodia. But the fact that the CIA was well aware of what was brewing in Phnom Penh is also beyond doubt.
The coup d’état displayed a high degree of political stupidity: Lon Nol was engaging with a country that had already decided to withdraw its forces from Southeast Asia.
The coup d’état was clearly a parricide and its perpetrators displayed a stunning naivety in thinking that the population would follow them. To be convinced of it, we need only to read what the members of parliament declared the night they overthrew Sihanouk’s regime. They were so outrageous and hysterical in accusing Sihanouk of all the crimes: Sihanouk had had an evil behavior, he was responsible of all what had happened, he had destroyed Cambodia’s morality, had betrayed the country... This hysterical behavior from men who had been not long ago Sihanouk’s faithful followers is an obvious way to justify themselves of the crime just committed. What they held against Sihanouk is so enormous that it cannot be taken seriously.
Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge
Sihanouk went to Beijing and on March 23 1970 he announced his intention to establish a National United Front of Kampuchea.
This government was a combination of all the various strength which openly opposed Lon Nol regime which a few months later abolished the Monarchy and gave birth to the Khmer Republic.
The game was perilous. There was already a Khmer Rouge presence in the government. That presence was very discreet in the beginning, mainly with personalities with a high degree of education who appeared as acceptable representatives.
In February 1973, after the Paris agreement had been signed between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc, Tho the bombing of North Vietnam had to stop immediately. The US high command turned then the entire US air bombardment campaign onto Cambodia. From Feb 1973 to July 1973, 200,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodian territory.
It is at precisely that time (late February 1973) that the North Vietnamese and the Chinese organized a trip of Sihanouk right inside Cambodia. They used the Ho Chi Minh trail and jungle trucks to bring him right in the middle of Cambodia where he had photographs taken with the Khmer Rouge leaders: Khieu Samphan, Hu Yuon, Hu Nim and a character that according to Sihanouk was only 3rd or 4th rank in the hierarchy: Saloth Sâr who later became known by the name of Pol Pot.
Sihanouk appeared as the leader of the forces fighting Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic. Sihanouk was too smart not to understand the situation. These Khmer Rouge people who had always been politically and military insignificant became overnight important because they had known how to use the aftermath of the coup d’état of March 18 1970.
Instead of talking of Communism, they advocated the return of Sihanouk’s regime. Let’s bring back Sihanouk to power was an outstanding motto: in the context of a civil war, Sihanouk’s regime was considered as a paradise on earth, and many people joined the Khmer Rouge for that reason. Sihanouk understood that, he knew very well what was going to happen: once the Khmer Rouge got what they wanted they would get rid of him.
The message of Sihanouk March 73 trip is simple: the republican government was unable to control most of Cambodian territory, as an evidence Sihanouk could have his photograph taken right in the central part of Cambodia. From this point of view, Sihanouk’s trip was a success. But Sihanouk was also supposed to meet his Cambodian people, and this was a total failure. The only Cambodian people he could meet were Khmer Rouge.
Back to Beijing, a subtle diplomatic game began. Sihanouk was closely watched by the Khmer Rouge and Ieng Sary had been appointed to keep an eye on him. The Khmer Rouge counted on a total military victory in order to get the power without having to do any concessions: negotiations had to be avoided at any cost.
The French even had the project to bring Sihanouk back to Cambodia and that would have meant the end of the war. Unfortunately, both the Khmer Rouge and Nixon, followed by President Ford refused it. By the time the US accepted that solution in early April 75, it was too late.
April 75 was the beginning of a nightmare which was to last 3 years 8 month and 20 days.
Sihanouk was then allowed to come to Phnom Penh, in Sept 75, where he spent 16 days. According to his functions he was head of the state. He then left again for a diplomatic tour to the United Nations, and a number of countries such as Rumania, Yugoslavia, China and North Korea. Meanwhile the news had begun spreading over the reality of the Khmer Rouge regime and Sihanouk contemplated his resignation. He finally decided to go back to Phnom Penh “because of his love for his people and his need to share their fate”. One thing is sure: when he arrived in January 1976, he had no illusions about the real nature of the KR regime.
On April 2 1976 his resignation was accepted. After that, he remained in his palace with his wife and his two children Narindrapong and Sihamoni. The other members of his family who came to PP with him were transported away from the city and killed.
Sihanouk was then like a prisoner in his royal palace. He described this period in his book “Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge”.
As the noise of the Vietnamese guns could be heard from Phnom Penh in early January 1979, Pol Pot paid Sihanouk a visit for the first time. Sihanouk would later recall the impressions of the four-hour talks.
Pol Pot appeared to him as a charismatic personality, a kind of Bluebeard who would seduce his victims with his soft voice and his gentle manners. Pol Pot asked him to take the last plane to Beijing and then to go to the United States to defend Cambodia’s interest. Sihanouk had no other choice but to accept and on January 6, he fled out of Phnom Penh one day before the Vietnamese army reached the capital.
On January 8 Sihanouk arrived to Beijing where he held a press conference. Sihanouk then faced a terrible dilemma: on the one side, he had to condemn the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, on the other he could not refrain from denouncing Pol Pot and his regime. One day later he let to the United Nations where he was closely watched by the Khmer Rouge in New York.
Sihanouk then tried to defect from the Khmer Rouges and was finally convinced not to do so by the Chinese. He was then offered by Deng Xiao Ping a residence in Beijing where he settled in February 1979. At that time, most observers considered that his leading political part had reached an end. This was underestimating Sihanouk. At the beginning it was no question for him to collaborate with his former jailers who were responsible of the death of hundreds of thousands Cambodians, amongst them members of his family who came back to Phnom Penh with him in 1975. The old dialectics between the part a statesman is expected to play and his personal feelings was at work. Again Sihanouk didn’t hesitate very long and on June 1982 the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in Kuala Lumpur: Sihanouk called it “a pact with the devil”. Sihanouk could then depart from his own diplomatic strategy.
The conjunction of two facts is essential to understand what followed: Sihanouk diplomacy and the fact Gorbatchev’s Soviet Union didn’t intend to support the Vietnamese military adventures in Cambodia forever. All the Cambodian factions then agreed on the sending of UN forces to Cambodia in 1992 to organize the May, 1993 election.
The Paris International Peace Conference could take place on October 23 1991 and 19 nations attended it.
After the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC)-sponsored elections took place in May 1993, the Members of Parliament voted a special motion to grant Sihanouk “full and special powers” and all the members of the assembly declared that the March 18 1970 coup d’état had illegally stripped the Prince from his functions of Head of the State.
Return to the throne
On September 24 1993, Sihanouk was re crown as King of Cambodia more than 38 years after he had abdicated. Sihanouk was then a constitutional monarch who could rule but not govern, although he was the commander of the armed forces and could use a veto over the appointment of ministers and judges.
In 2003 Sihanouk expressed his will to retire. He did not abdicate and Sihamoni was elected as the new king by the crown council.
Sihanouk didn’t remain inactive. He went on publishing on his website explaining his vision of the course of Cambodian history.
On October 15 2012 Norodom Sihanouk’s time on planet earth ended.
Milton Osborne’s book “Sihanouk prince of light, Sihanouk prince of darkness” reminds us that Sihanouk’s life and deeds are not solely a rosy picture.
As a king and mainly as a prince after his abdication to become the head of the state, the vision the people had of Sihanouk has always been strong and uncompromising: faithful followers and implacable enemies.
A moralistic approach wouldn’t allow us to understand such an outstanding personality. For the analyst, the many sided aspects of his character and his numerous activities generate confusion: what does the movie maker has to do with the statesman? Yet it is not Sihanouk’s personality that is paradoxical, but Sihanouk’s life and deeds display an incredible capacity to integrate paradoxes into an art of governing.