Monday, August 22, 2011

A History of Cambodia (2)

This is the second part of my review of David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia (2nd edition). The first part is in my previous post.

Between Thailand and Vietnam
The period when Angkor is abandoned by kings and rule shifts to Phnom Penh is very poorly documented. Likely, the rapid expansion of Chinese maritime trade under the Yuan and early Ming had something to do with the shift from an inland centre to a river port and what seems to have been a much more commercial version of kingship, particularly by the C17th. There were also regular wars between the Thai kingdom centred in Ayudha and Cambodia.

After being permitted to set up customs posts in the Mekong delta in the 1630s, the Vietnamese poured into the region, rapidly reducing the Khmer to a minority in what is now southern Vietnam, cutting Cambodia off from maritime access to the wider world. Increasingly, the pattern grew of Cambodia moving to a shifting pendulum of conflict and alliance between Thailand and Vietnam. Conflict with Thailand in particular seems to have been perennial, with the Thai capture of Lovek in 1587 being seen as a traumatic defeat for the Cambodians. This was also a period of increasing contact with Europeans, with at least one Cambodian king even promising to convert to Christianity if the Spanish would help him against the Thais. One Cambodian king converted to Islam, was defeated by the Vietnamese and carted off to Vietnam in a cage (Pp77ff).

From the late C18th to the mid C19th, Cambodia was a weak state oscillating between its more powerful neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. Succession disputes within the royal family would have aspiring would-be kings attempt to the support of one, leading to the incumbent king to seek the support of the other and successive invasions by both neighbours (Pp99ff).

This culminated in Vietnamese occupation and Cambodia’s (temporary) disappearance as a separate state. Chandler observes that:
Just as Jayavarman VII’s ideology can be compared in some ways to the ideology of Democratic Kampuchea, the first half of the nineteenth century bears some resemblance to the 1970s in terms of foreign intervention, chaos and the sufferings of the Cambodian people (p.117).
Thai and Vietnamese forces fought over Cambodia, with Vietnam essentially attempting to incorporate Cambodia from 1834 to 1847, being defeated by Thai military power and how different Cambodian society and rulership was from Vietnamese patterns. The reign of Duang (1848-1860) saw Theravada Buddhism and the Cambodian kingship restored, although a kingship subservient to the Thai monarchs Rama III and IV (Pp123ff).

Enter the French
In 1863, Cambodia became a French protectorate. Up until 1906, Cambodia was self-governing. After Sisowath’s coronation in 1906, French control intensified. In its last period, 1941-53, the French were reduced to trying to retain their position under pressure from Thais (France and Thailand fought a brief war, which went well for Thailand on land but badly in the sea and air), the Japanese and agitation for Cambodian independence (Pp 137ff).

The picture Chandler paints of French colonialism is of a colonial power that never understood the society it was administering; a colonial rule which was very much, indeed increasingly, driven by its own internal dynamics. As Chandler observes:
… the volume of reports required by residents, and consumed by their superiors in Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hanoi, and Paris, increased dramatically. Residents, more than ever, were tied down to their offices, presiding over a two-way flow of paper; they were seldom in contact, socially or professionally, with the people they were intended to protect. In automobiles, tours of inspection became speedier and more superficial, for residents and their aides were confined to passable roads. In fact, the intensification of French economic and political controls over Cambodia, noticeable throughout the 1920s and after, was accompanied, ironically, by the withdrawal of French officials from many levels of Cambodian life (p.152).
Much of the revenue seems to have gone to support a colonial bureaucracy that was mostly concerned with revenue collection (and one technique of said rule was to supply plentiful free opium to the reigning kings [p.149]). Competence in Khmer declined among French officials (p.156).

There were some rationalising campaigns such as abolishing “slavery”—a campaign pursued without much sign of understanding the role bondage played in the economy and society, nor how to replace its functions (though a cynical view would be that there was in fact a deliberate intention to disconnect the local elite and replace them with French officials: either way, it provoked a major popular revolt in 1885-6 [Pp144-5]). But there was not much concern with, for example, suppressing brigandage in outlying areas (p.155), providing any education, electricity or similar C20th intrusions (p.156). They did succeed in creating a small, French-speaking intelligentsia whose aspirations they mostly frustrated and many of whom, ominously, picked up Sorbonne/Ecole-style Marxism.

Comparing the post-colonial experience of South-East Asian countries, clearly it was much better to be subject to British colonialism (Malaya, Singapore: though Burma is a bit of a black mark), retaining independence (Thailand) or Dutch colonialism (Indonesia) than suffering French colonialism (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam). This was not merely a matter of the direct colonial experience but also what framings your post-colonial elite imbibed. Even given the drag the Permit Raj has been on Indian economic growth, clearly it was better to have your post-colonial elite be Oxbridge/LSE-educated by such as Harold Laski than Sorbonne/Ecole-educated by Louis Althusser and his ilk. But Western intelligentsia criticisms of “colonialism” rarely consider the responsibility of folk such as themselves for post-colonial disasters.

From the 1930s, a sense of Cambodian nationalism began to arise among the small, French-educated elite. Including Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot) whose elder sister was one of King Monivong’s concubines (p.162). But, up until the fall of France in 1940, no doubts were offered by French officials about the permanence of French control: there were certainly no policies directed at a post-French rule future (p.164). The experience of French weakness from June 1940 to October 1945 changed everything:
By the end of 1945, Cambodian independence, impracticable and almost unthought of in 1939, had become primarily a matter of time (p.165).
In April 1941, a shy young prince, Norodom Sihanouk, became King: he was do dominate the country and its politics for most of the next half century (p.167).

The French continued their “improvement” projects, including an attempted replacement of the Khmer alphabet with roman letters; one of the first acts of Cambodian government after the Japanese pushed aside the French in March 1945 was to rescind this decree:
… as so often in Cambodian history, what the French saw as self-evident improvement in the status quo the Cambodians saw as an attack on the essential character of their civilisation, defined in part by what had been passed down from Angkorean times (p.170).
At Japanese request, King Sihanouk declared Cambodia independent. There followed a brief period (March – October 1945) when patriotic politics operated openly: along with the beginnings of anti-French guerrilla resistance. By 1946, Cambodia was once again a French protectorate, the French having control over defence, foreign affairs and finance, with the Cambodians promised the right to a constitution and to form political parties (p.172).

The re-imposition of French dominance turned out to be temporary. While Cambodia largely avoided the guerrilla warfare that convulsed Vietnam it (though the Thai government did finance anti-Japanese and anti-French guerrillas along the Thai-Cambodian frontier [p.174]), along with the rest of Indochina, became independent.

From what Chandler writes, it is clear that the model of modern statehood the French provided was little connected to the wishes or perspectives of the general populace, still less concerned with service delivery. It was marked by “rationalising” projects that arose out of the framings of the officials, not the needs, wants and perspectives of the ruled. This was an ominous model to impart.

Becoming independent
In the years prior to independence, political parties formed. Politics rapidly devolved into the Democratic and Liberal Parties, both led by Princes. The former proved to be much more electorally popular, leading it to a position to make the Constitution as it wished. Sihanouk resisted, eventually being able to achieve complete dominance over politics by effectively turning Cambodia into a one-Party state under his control, starting with his June 1952 French-assisted coup against his own government. In the lead-up to Sihanouk’s seizure of power, the Democrats faded, various right-wing groupings organised and the guerrilla movement transformed into the Cambodian Communist Party eventually led by Saloth Sar (Pp173ff).

Having achieved political dominance within Cambodia, Sihanouk then led the campaign for independence. In October 1953, the French caved, granting Cambodia control over its defence and foreign policy while the lack of fighting in Cambodia gave Sihanouk’s delegation a strong position at the Geneva peace conference. Sihanouk’s government, the French and the Vietnamese communists all agreed to freeze out the Cambodian communists (Pp184ff). As for the last:
For several thousand of them, 1954 marked the beginning of a “Long March” that that would take them to exile in Hanoi, not to return to Cambodia until the 1970s when almost all of them were killed by U.S. bombing, Lon Nol’s army or internal Communist purges at the instigation of Pol Pot, by then the leader of the Cambodian Communist party. A few hardy survivors of this group were given cabinet positions in the post-1979 government of Cambodia (p.186).
The story of Cambodia thereon is a countdown to disaster and its aftermath.

Sihanouk dominated Cambodian politics until 1970, treating the Cambodian people as his children, dissent as treachery, engaging in endless hard work, weaving a path between Americans and North Vietnamese, trying various (generally unsuccessful) economic schemes and eventually retreating more and more into making films he starred in and directed (Pp186ff).

One dynamic was that commercialisation basically meant more wealth to the Chinese and Sino-Cambodian minority: the association of “capitalism” with ethnic difference encouraged state-driven economic policies (p.201) even beyond confidence in state action being so much a dominant theme in intellectual and policy debates at the time.

After Sihanouk
In 1970, Sihanouk’s own Assembly (whose 1966 election he had failed to supervise with his normal care, giving priority to a major state visit by President de Gaulle [p.194]) voted him out of office and installed Lon Nol as Chief of State. Sihanouk retreated to exile in China and made common cause with the Cambodian Communists, who began to steadily win the civil war that now broke out in earnest. This culminated in the total victory of Pol Pot’s forces (Pp204ff).

For three-and-a-half years, Pol Pot’s surreal regime tyrannised, destroyed, slaughtered and starved: about a million Cambodians, or one in seven, of the population died. Chandler manages to tell the bizarre and horrid story in dispassionate language. Eventually, Pol Pot’s revolutionary hubris provoked a Vietnamese invasion, which rapidly subdued most of the country and installed a puppet government, to the relief of the vast majority of the population (Pp209ff). In all the appalling global record of Leninist tyranny and slaughter, Pol Pot’s regime remains the epitome of utopian madness: of the attempt to transform people and society by totally centralised control, heedless of human cost, aimed at creating the “final society”.

In the second edition, Chandler concludes with a chapter on post-Pol Pot Cambodia, up to 1991 (Pp227ff). So the edition does not include the UN intervention, the the 1993 restoration of the monarchy and a multi-party democracy. Hun Sen, one of the leaders brought to power by the Vietnamese invasion, remains PM; having been such since 1985, the longest-serving head of government in South East Asia. With Cambodia once again a monarchy, those elements of continuity in Cambodian history that are so much a part of Chandler’s narrative manifested again.

Precisely because the details of Cambodian history are so limited for so long, Chandler is forced to concentrate on patterns. Even better, he does so in a way that is clear, perceptive and revealing. Throughout the book, he keeps the reader well informed on the sources used and available. A History of Cambodia is a useful and enlightening work of history.

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