Saturday, July 30, 2011
From the mid 20th century onward, modern ages have added some more dramatic shocks and awes to Cambodian society. In a span of about half a century, Cambodia had seen a coup d’etat, two civil wars, a communist experiment, a foreign army occupation, and 5 different forms of governments. Driven mostly by domestic zealots, whose ambitions were to transform Cambodian society, a series of disastrous attempts were made to bring about social changes to Cambodia. Starting roughly in the early 1950’s, Cambodian society has endured perhaps more radical changes than it could cope with. First was the introduction of a constitutional monarchy—a form of absolute monarchical government where people were allowed to vote. Then, after the experiment got bogged down with political squabbling, a republic was created to replace the decadent monarchy. Before long, the republic was, in turn, replaced by a communist regime which had ushered in perhaps the most devastating disaster in Cambodian history. It took a Vietnamese intervention to stop the upheaval from spinning out of control and paved a path for recovery. In the end, about one fourth of Cambodian population lost their lives, and, after 46 years of harrowing experimentation with political and social reforms, the whole endeavor appears to end up at where it began—a constitutional monarchy.
Since 1993, with a helping hand from the United Nations, Cambodia, as a nation/society, now, once again, embarks on yet another socio-political reform. With democracy (and its underline elements—namely human liberty and all the freedoms it espouses) standing in as a rescue package, the UN (and, in a sense, the world) had persuaded and aided Cambodia to embrace democracy as a way to lift itself out of a socio-politico-economic quagemire. Though it is perhaps too early to call the UN’s effort a success or a failure, it is, nevertheless, very tempting for students of Cambodian history to ask question regarding endeavors to transform Cambodian society: If the Vietnamese could not do it, the French could not do it, the Cambodians themselves could not do it, would the UN be able to do it?
As democracy takes roots in Cambodia, so does political patronages and cult of personalities—a time-honored practice dated back to the inception of the Cambodian kingdom. At the turn of the 13th century, Chou Ta-Kuan, a Chinese envoy, wrote a vivid description on how people, who had beautiful daughters, would present their daughters to the king in order to seek favors from him; or, the wealthy elites would go to great length to underwrite or undertake expensive projects to please the king. If there were another Chou Ta-Kuan coming to observe Cambodian society nowadays, he would undoubtedly write the same aspects of life with a modern twist to it: People would buy gifts or offer bribes to influential public officials to seek favors from them. Wealthy people called Oknha would build schools or other public buildings and named them after powerful politicians to secure their protection. Against the backdrops of these retrogressive behaviors, one must raise a question that if the social elites could not shake off the old out-of-date habits, what chances would ordinary Cambodians have to overcome the challenges of making democracy practical and useful for their lives? In other words, is it worth the sacrifices of ordinary Cambodian’s tranquil, easy-going subsistent lifestyles, or, in some cases, their lives, in order to help them lift themselves out of poverty, vis-à-vis, out of a seemingly out-of-date lifestyle?
Monday, July 11, 2011
During this period of decline, two attempts to bring about social changes to the Cambodian kingdom were made. The first attempt to bring about social changes to Cambodia was made during the first quarter of the 19th century by the Vietnamese who had briefly occupied Cambodia. After receiving reports about the ways in which Cambodians conducted their daily lives from his general named Truong Minh Giang who was in charge of administering Cambodia at the time, Emperor Minh Mang of Vietnam, in 1839, wrote a detailed instruction to Truong Minh Giang to institute a reform and change the habits of the “barbarian” Cambodians. Perhaps unaware of the existence of the civilization and achievements accomplished by Cambodians in the past, Emperor Minh Mang embarked on what could be called a civilizing mission to lift Cambodia from its barbarian state. The mission included changing the ways they work the fields, how they should organize and govern themselves, and, most important of all, the dress codes for Cambodian officials should be modeled after those of the Vietnamese’s. These infringements on the Cambodian identity and their way of life triggered a massive backlash. A general uprising against the Vietnamese overlords was ensued. Needless to say, the mission was a disaster and an utter failure. Every cultural icon associated with Vietnamese was hated and the rift between the two cultures has forever widened. After the failure of the civilizing mission in Cambodia, General Truong Minh Giang committed suicide by poisoning himself upon returning to Vietnam. As for the Cambodians, they were left to pursue their interests according to what they saw fit for their lives, namely a relaxed, easygoing lifestyle which was the trademark of their society since time immemorial.
Toward the end of the 19th century, another attempt to bring about social changes to Cambodia was made. At this time, France which had just established colonial rule over the peninsula of Indochina, namely Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, saw a need to civilize the seemingly primitive people it governed. After successfully convincing the Vietnamese to adapt the Roman alphabets for the writing of their language, France turned its attention to civilize the Cambodians. The first step the French took was to reform the administrative infrastructure in Cambodia by limiting the King’s role in the affairs of the state. Furthermore, the French introduced a more “effective” collection of taxes from the Cambodian people payable in the form of either, cash, kind, or labor forces, which they thought could be used to support both the needs of the colonists and the improvement of Cambodia’s administrative infrastructures. Finally, toward the end of its colonization over Cambodia, the French made the Cambodians adapt the Roman alphabets for the writing of their language just as what the Vietnamese had done.
Needless to say, the French civilizing mission in Cambodia was invariably met with failure for the most part, for it touched on one of the most sensitive issues for the Cambodians—that is the changing of their way of life and their identities. Led mostly by Buddhist monks or former Buddhist monks (the Achar), rebellions and protests were to become a regular occurrence every time the French pushed the Cambodians to accept reforms.
The French eventually abandoned their civilizing mission in Cambodia and turned their attention to exploiting the country instead. As a punishment for Cambodian stubbornness, the French made little effort to build schools or institutions for the education of Cambodian children. Basically, education for the general Cambodian population was left to Buddhist monks to take care of.