Cambodian People, Society, Culture, and Civilization
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.
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.
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.
(To be continued)