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