Friday, June 24, 2011
Among all the cultural and social changes ever to shape Cambodian lives, only Hinduism, which arrived in Cambodia during the early part of its history, appeared to be met with better success—at least for a thousand years or so. As a religious concept vis-à-vis culture, Hinduism seemed to fit and intertwine very well with the Cambodian system of belief in the supernatural being, namely the Neak Ta. In all likelihood, it was probably the marriages between Hinduism and the belief in supernatural beings that propelled the Cambodians to achieve and build one of the most admirable civilizations at Angkor. Though, artistically, we don’t precisely know as to how much Indian influences upon the Cambodian creativity when their civilization at Angkor was founded, most experts agreed that Angkor was mainly the creation of Cambodians with the assistance of Indian concepts.
After the honeymoon at Angkor, the marriages between Indian and Cambodian cultures turned sour when another religion, Buddhism, entered into the relationship. The arrival of Buddhism coincided with the decline of Cambodia as an empire and a dominant kingdom. The devaraja monarchy, as an institution which had driven the placid Cambodians to conquer and build their empire for hundreds of years, began to fall apart. After being exposed to the teaching of Buddhism which emphasizes compassion and pacifism, the once assertive and, maybe, aggressive Cambodians, who, for many years, had been spurred on by the concepts of conquest and nation building, mellowed down and returned to a life of simplicity.
From the closing of the 14th century onward, the Cambodian rendezvous with destiny has been an arduous journey. The once mighty Cambodian Empire has now been reduced to a feeble and pariah state where palace intrigues and royal feuds were the regular features of the affairs of the kingdom. The internal conflicts amongst its rulers for the next four centuries, or so, were so pervasive that the Cambodian political, social, cultural, and economic infrastructures were in tatters. The kingdom grew weaker by the day. There were no able leaders to revitalize the kingdom and stop it from falling further into a state of disarray. Furthermore, the Cambodian population appeared to be utterly alienated with the reality of their lives. They seemed to be withdrawn from any ambition to rebuild their kingdom beyond that of their own basic domains. As a result, Angkor, as a city and center of the Cambodian political and cultural organizations, was abandoned and neglected. In addition, invasions and encroachments from rivaling states such as Thailand and Vietnam dealt even further blows to the weakening Cambodian kingdom. At times, the survival of the kingdom itself was in question when the once mighty Cambodia became an alternate vassal state of its neighbors, namely Vietnam and Thailand.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
The State of Cambodian Reading
(Please Click on the 3rd grade reading (video) above to watch)
This is the story of an accidental discovery. Though I am not a researcher by any shape or form, this discovery was compelling enough that it merits, I think, sharing with the Cambodian public at large.
Starting almost a decade ago, I, in collaboration with some of my friends, have worked on creating reading books for Cambodian children. We divided the books into three volumes. As each volume was completed, I would go to Cambodia, publish it, and distribute it to poor children. In 2008, I distributed some books to a group of poor children living near my aunt’s house. Due to limited number of books, I gave the books to only those children who could read. The ones who could not read yet had to wait for next time. However, one courageous boy, who had just begun learning in the first grade, came up to me and asked if he could have a book to keep with him so that when he was able to read he would learn to read that book. Unable to turn down his request, I decided to give that boy a book and hope that he would keep his promise.
Earlier this year, after getting the final volume of the children’s books published, I went to visit my aunt’s home again and sought out that boy to whom I had given a book 3 years ago. He is in the third grade now. I told him that I had some new books that I would like to give him and his friends if he would mind going around asking them to come to receive the books. The boy went around the neighborhood and found a few of his friends to come and receive the books. As a way to test the children’s ability to read, I decided to ask each child to read me a story while I am recording them on my digital camera. As I was listening to the children’s reading one after another, I noticed that their reading ability varied greatly. As it is evidence in the video clip above, the boy (wearing red vest) to whom I gave a book 3 years ago could read very well while his classmates were performing rather poorly. I know this is a very small sample of subjects on which to conduct a study, but the finding has nevertheless given us an indication on how much difference supplemental reading books could make. I hope that this finding would generate some interests among Cambodian researchers to conduct a more systemic study to see how great an impact supplemental reading has on children’s ability to read.
It is perhaps worthwhile to look into how the Cambodian governmental structures were like throughout history, especially, the uses and development of the terms Phaendey and Sroks. There seems to be no evidence suggesting when the terms phaendey or daendey and sroks entered into the Cambodian vocabulary. However, based on historical context, these terms might have dated back to the Angkorian Era when the concept of universal monarch began to take roots in Cambodia. The term phaendey could probably be intertwined with the concept of a universal monarch (sdach phaendey) because he was the only master of his domain and his phaendey means territories (including those under the rules of other monarchs) of which he, the universal monarch, was able to consolidate under his rule.
Organizationally, the Cambodians of antiquity appeared to structure their governmental administration along the concept of a federation system possibly similar to the former Soviet Union in the late 20th century. The kingdom as a whole would be composed of a number of vassal kingdoms and autonomous territories which would answer to the central kingdom, Cambodia, and her universal monarch. It was those vassal kingdoms and territories that the Cambodians used the term sroks to identify them.
In the administrative scheme of things, each srok had a semi-independent leader either a vassal monarch or a chieftain. Their roles were to protect the interests of their own turfs vis-à-vis those of the universal monarch who acted as a grand council and protector, or, in some cases, prosecutor, for all of them. As far as government was concerned, the relationships between the Cambodian monarch and his administrative staffs, namely leaders of the sroks, were largely based on a patronage structure. As a matter of fact, we could still see this patronage structure remains in practice today.
Like most monarchical empires throughout the ages, whose rules of governance were usually based on absolutism, the Khmer Empire (though comparatively small in size) was eventually fallen apart after several hundred years of existence. As the empire fell, the influences of the universal monarch waned, new or renewed kingdoms emerged, the administrative structures began to change as well. This was what happened to the Cambodian kingdom in the late 14th century. The event coincided with the Mongol invasion and occupation of China. As the Mongol invaded and occupied China, the Tai people, an ethnic minority living in the Chinese southwestern province of Yunnan, moved down the Mekong River valley to settle in northern Siam (Thailand). There they commingled with the Siamese and eventually formed the kingdom of Sukuthai from where the present kingdom of Thailand was originated.
Sukuthai (and subsequently Ayutthaya) played a pivotal role in the demise of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. It not only challenged the Cambodian hegemony over Siam but also subdued and broke down the power structure of the Cambodian kingdom. After the rise of Sukuthai, we saw that the concept of universal monarch and the term phaendey as a political administration began to fade away from the realm of Cambodian politics. The term srok was also modified to signify a large region instead of a vassal kingdom. Subsequently, in the 19th century, after the arrival of the French colonial rulers, the Cambodian political administration was once again changed to reflect the taste of French politics. The French drew the boundary of the Cambodian kingdom and divided it into provinces (khaets), districts (sroks), communes (sangkats), and villages (phums) similar to that of France. So, this is what remains of the Cambodian kingdom--a country now bureaucratically cloaks in French clothes and survives largely through the wits of its easygoing and placid people.
Throughout its historical journey, Cambodia, as a nation, appeared to be full of paradoxes. To most observers, the Cambodian people, from the past to the present, appear to be socially, economically, and politically unremarkable, yet they were able to manage to build one of the greatest civilizations on earth. Throughout their history, the Cambodians have been, from time to time, subjected to the most horrific tragedies and abuses ever occurred to humankind, yet they were able to rebound, regroup, rebuild, and preserve their society and culture. At times, the survival of their culture and identity as a people appeared to be rolling down toward the abyss of extinction, yet they were able to manage to rescue themselves from the graveyard of history. These Cambodian paradoxes are perhaps one of the most misunderstood and interesting phenomena of Cambodian history. Take the building of Angkor, for instance. When the monuments at the Angkor complexes were discovered by the European explorers in the 19th century, not many of them believed that such grandiose civilization could have been founded by the backward and apparently unremarkable Cambodians. However, evidences showed that they did it. Just how did these backward people manage to do it, nobody seems to be able to give a satisfactory answer to that question either because it appeared to be part of the Cambodian paradoxes.
As a nation, Cambodia appears to be less receptive to social changes, especially those imposed by outsiders. The greatest forces to resist social changes were and are the Cambodian people themselves. Though easygoing and placid, the Cambodians appear to be very reactive when their traditional way of life is threatened by the imposition of outsiders’ ideas. Over the course of its history, we have seen attempts to bring about social changes in Cambodia quite a few times, the latest being the worldly beloved concepts and principles of democracy which the United Nations and the international community try to instill within the Cambodian psyches since the 1990s.