Images of Cambodia

Hey everyone:

Today I have for you a more serious post. This is an essay I wrote for uni on a topic that I honestly found fascinating, and therefore decided to share it with you. I find the idea that the core of a culture can come from outside a culture itself extremely intriguing, but this is what seems to have occured in Cambodia, and to a certain degree in many other mainland Southeast Asian countries.

Hope you enjoy this,


Rebuilding Cambodian Identity:

Cambodian Identity, External Influences and the Khmer Rouge

The incorporation of elements from other cultures has long been one of the main defining factors of Southeast Asia. Hybridity and syncretic processes transcend national borders, and the cultures of neighbouring states bleed together. Examples of indianization and sinicization can be seen in most mainland Southeast Asian states, as well as in many of the island states. The borders of these states were defined and fought over by imperial powers who, in doing so, brought traces of their own cultures into the melting pot that is Southeast Asia. Posterior Western intervention in the region added to the number of Western cultural characteristics adopted by the locals. Cambodia is an excellent example of these processes. It is the product of an Indianized kingdom known by its Chinese name, Funan. Historically, it has often been under either Vietnam or Siam, its neighbors to the East and West respectively. Finally, in the imperial era it was under the control of the French. All these episodes in the history of the state left their mark on the culture of the locals, already predisposed to absorb cultural elements from others. However, from 1975 to 1979, the country was led by the followers of the Khmer Communist Party, better known as the Khmer Rouge. Their Marxist-based social engineering attempts gave way to what has become known as the Cambodian genocide. Their acts were also influenced by strong Khmer nationalism and the idealization of the kingdom of Angkor, which, together with their communist ideals, led them to attempt to severe ties with foreign influences, as well as anyone else suspected of “involvement in free market activities” (Ung, 2011, p. 23). The objective of this essay is to argue that attempting to remove external elements from Cambodian culture is tantamount to ‘de-cambodianizising’ it, because modern Cambodian culture evolved from the joining and incorporation of elements from neighboring kingdoms and states, and therefore is essentially external in nature. This will be done by, firstly, studying a selection of moments in Cambodian history in which many external elements were absorbed into local culture, secondly, Khmer Rouge nationalism and xenophobia will be discussed, and, finally, a brief study of external elements in the reconstruction of Cambodian identity after the Khmer Rouge regime will be added.

Southeast Asia is both rife with cultural and ethnic diversity and very culturally homogenous. The particular nature of these states was born from an amalgamation of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Confucianist influences, layered on top of old, mostly animistic beliefs (Simon, 2010, p. 23). Each element extracted from one of these cultures and incorporated into Southeast Asian cultures did so through syncretic processes, which consist of the “borrowing, affirmation, or integration of concepts, symbols, or practices of one religious tradition into another by a process of selection and reconciliation” (Berlin, 1980, p. 9). These cross-cultural encounters, which have occurred more or less regularly in the region since the early days of the existence of man (Bentley, 1993, p. vii), have also resulted in hybridization which, according to the work of Homi K. Bhabha, gives way to culturally hybrid states, with mutually constructive cultures that are, to an extent, interdependent (Huddart, 2006, p. 7). The strongest influences in the region are India and China, whose cultural characteristics have been incorporated into the Southeast Asian states through processes of Indianization and Sinicization respectively. These processes can therefore be defined as the “historical transmission of Indian [or Chinese] cultural influence in Southeast Asia” (Southworth, 2004, pp. 642-44). The early kingdoms of this region are known as the Indianized Kingdoms, due to abundant cultural similarities with their Hindi neighbours. The historical record for them, however, was initiated by the Chinese (Coedès, 1968, p. 36).

Many elements incorporated into Southeast Asian traditions in this fashion are still present today, but find themselves mixed with Western customs. During the era of imperialism and colonialism, Southeast Asia was mostly divided between the British and the French. In the same way that the processes of indianization and sinicization had occurred, the Southeast Asian peoples selected, appropriated and adapted aspects of first European culture from these two countries and, later on, from North American culture as well (Harrison and Jackson, 2009, p. 328). These were the main entities from which Southeast Asian countries drew upon and adapted cultural elements throughout its history.

Khmer Identity

In the case of Cambodia, the Indianized roots are clear. Cambodia, once the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, was one of the main Indianized kingdoms. A well-known legend exists in which a brahman named Kaundiya, who owned a magical bow, appeared one day off the shore of Cambodia, which was a water-logged kingdom ruled by a king whose daughter was a dragon princess, or nagi. The princess approached him in a paddleboat, and Kaundiya frightened her into marrying him by shooting an arrow into said boat. Before the wedding, the brahman gifted the princess some clothes, and the dragon king, in exchange, drank the water that covered part of the kingdom, thus enlarging his son-in-law’s new possessions, built a capital and changed the name of the country to ‘Kambuja’. This name is of Indian origin, as is the myth itself (Finot, 1911). Most of the information on Kambuja that has reached us today comes from Chinese texts, where the kingdom was called Funan (Stuart-Fox, 2003, p. 29). These texts described how the kingdom that occupied the lower Mekong basin created its own culture, much of which indicated Indian influence. Henri Stierlin (1979), for example, describes in his The Cultural History of Angkor various elements of Indian origin, present in many different areas of Khmer life. The rice-growing system, perfected centuries earlier in India was instrumental in allowing Funan to spread its influence over many of its neighbors (p. 11-12). The animistic set of beliefs the Khmer professed before the arrival of the Indian merchants that were key in the indianization of the kingdom mingled with Hinduism and Buddhism, which were adopted in a very relaxed way. For example, although each was based on the worship of different beings and entities, both Hindu and Buddhist monuments built according to traditional Khmer postulates, based on their original animistic beliefs. Indian contributions are, however, also visible in art and architecture, especially in the ground plans of Khmer shrines, which capture various elements from Buddhist and Hindu models. India also contributed the use of the Sanskrit script in religious texts, such as the Ramayana, and Indian mathematics, technology and astronomy were also adopted (p. 15-16). In the same way that Indian influence arrived through merchants, so did influence from Funan’s other neighbours. Although nowhere near as strong as Indian influence, the passage of Chinese merchants through Funan, mainly towards maritime ports, resulted in a certain level of sinicization. The presence of Greek, Roman and Persian remains in some of these ports suggests that the first elements of Western influence in Kambuja arrived via the seaports as well (Coèdes, 1964, p. 7).

The external elements that constituted the basis of the Khmer identity were further enriched throughout the years as the kingdom, later state, interacted with others. The history of 17th century to precolonial Cambodia is one of repeated Vietnamese and Siamese invasions. The rivalry between both neighbours of the Khmer reduced the independence of the kingdom, and the occupation of Khmer territory resulted in a loss of access to the sea and therefore of independent sea trade, altering the kingdom’s economy (Church, 2017, p. 18), one of the main pillars of state identity.  The Vietnamization that took place in Cambodia once Vietnamese control was imposed in the 19th century also took its toll on the Khmer. The cultural reforms imposed tore at the root of Khmer notions of their own identity, as the Vietnamese sought to eradicate what they considered ‘barbarous’ Cambodian customs, such as wearing skirts instead of trousers, eating with hands or greeting from a kneeling position, rather than a standing one (Chandler, 2008, p. 153). This situation generated the perception of the Vietnamese as the traditional enemies of Cambodia, also an important aspect of modern Cambodian identity. It was because of Vietnamese control that, in 1867, Khmer king Norodom requested to become a French protectorate. His wish would shortly be granted: the Khmers became part of French Indochina, and Siam and Vietnam were persuaded to accept this new situation, and to relinquish suzerainty on the region respectively (Montagnon, 1988, pp. 146-47). Many elements of the modern Khmer identity stem from the colonial period, which eventually resulted in the creation of the Khmer nationalist movement. Cambodian pride in their culture and their past achievements was awakened due to the propagation of Western ideas of democracy and self-rule, as well as to the French reparation of the monuments of Angkor Wat (Short, 2007, p. 47). They fixed the boundaries and systematized the government of Cambodia, giving the Khmer a state to identify with, and nurtured a sense of Khmer identity to lessen any cultural allegiance the Khmer may have had with Siam, especially through the shared predominance of Theravada Buddhism. The king became a significant national symbol as well, particularly in rural regions. The first Khmer nationalists worked from Cochinchina, and early nationalist messages were spread through Nagaravatta, the first newspaper written in the Khmer language (Ross, 1987, pp. 20-21).

The Khmer Rouge and the process of De-Khmerization

When Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, it became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk, clear proof of the imprint that French ideas had left on the Cambodian mind. However, this did not last long, as in 1970, a military coup took place, effectively creating the Khmer Republic. The new government was quickly attacked by the Vietnamese communists who had, until then, been allowed to use Cambodia as a sanctuary, and the king appealed for his remaining supporters to help in deposing the new government, which led to the outbreak of a civil war. The Vietnamese communists steadily gained control over Cambodian territory, where they became known as the Khmer Rouge, especially after Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their leadership (Morris, 1999, pp. 48-51). Upon conquering Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge soldiers set about creating a form of agrarian socialism, based on Communist ideals taken from the ideologies of Stalin and Mao, under the orders of Ongkar, or ‘the organization’. The ensuing policies resulted in the Cambodian Genocide, where forced evacuation of residents from cities, malnutrition, torture, forced labour, diseases and mass executions led to the death of over an estimated quarter of the country’s population (Heuveline, 1998, pp. 49-55). Aside from communist ideals, the Khmer Rouge were strongly nationalist, and wished to return to the nation the greatness it had once enjoyed. To do so, Pol Pot’s regime sought to eliminate all external influences, stopping foreign aid from entering the notion and eradicating anything they didn’t consider ‘fully Khmer’ (Álvarez, 2001, p. 50). Ethnic and religious minorities were targeted as well, religious practices were prohibited, and the purges were justified as necessary for the “purification of the populace” (Hannum, 1989, pp. 88-89).

Religion is always a large part of state identity. In the case of Cambodia, the main religion is Theravada Buddhism, which evolved from and replaced the Mahayana Buddhism brought into the region by Indian merchants who passed through or settled in Funan, Cambodia’s predecessor. It was a fundamental part of the indianization process that first shaped the Khmer identity, and thus, by abolishing religion in the new Khmer Rouge Constitution, the Khmer Rouge abolished the core of Cambodian beliefs and values, mostly centered around the Buddhist idea of karma. Monks and priests were sent to work in the fields, like all other Cambodians (Weltig, 2009, pp. 94, 107), pagodas were used as places for storage, political indoctrination and even torture. Religion was seen as a potential source of counterrevolutionary influence, as well as of challenge against the ruling party (Etcheson, 1984, p. 151).  The prevailing family structure in Cambodia, for example, had its roots in Buddhist religion. The Khmer believed that parents and children were paired with each other on the basis of karmic status (Czymoniewicz-Klippel, 2017, p. 329). The Khmer Rouge not only prohibited that which constituted the basis of the family unit, but also dismantled the families per se, they redefined family in a way that excluded children, for these belonged to the organization and were taken away from their parents to live in barracks or work at other worksites (Kiernan, 1997, pp. xi-xii). The king, an important national symbol, also obtained much of his legitimacy from religion. Traditionally, the king held all local authority and was the protector of the state and national religion, to the point where national existence would be threatened if he were not there. Therefore, political movements gained little support in Cambodia if they were not supported by, or at least linked to the monarchy (Etcheson, 1984, p. 129). Even Pol Pot’s regime sought the legitimacy afforded by association with the king, and subsequently, with religion, by claiming that they had transcended the discipline of the Buddhist monks and by keeping the king, Sihanouk, alive, albeit isolated in the palace (Morris, 2017, p. 31).

Due to the changes the French colonial era generated in the Khmer identity, Theravada Buddhism, one of its main pillars, and its practices were altered. This was due to the rationalist reforms imported from the neighboring kingdom of Siam, where they had been implemented in an attempt to foster their relationship with the French (Lim, 2017, p. 360). A lot of French influence arrived in Cambodia through those who left the country to study in France and returned to Cambodia after completing university. However, almost anyone with an education was considered by the Khmer Rouge as a suspected capitalist, and therefore marked for execution, as were those who understood a foreign language or, often, even those who wore glasses, who were accused of spending time reading when they should work (Frey, 2009, pp. 266-67). The objective of this was the elimination of many cultural elements from France and other Western countries that had made their way into Khmer culture, and therefore, Khmer identity. They did indeed seem to disappear, if only because those who had them hid them to avoid execution, and so modern external factors, as well as those present almost since the origin of the Khmer civilization, were attacked, and the bases of Khmer identity were undermined.

Combatting De-Khmerization: The Reconstruction of an Identity

The demise of the Khmer Rouge began with the preemptive attack on Vietnam in 1978. A Vietnamese victory prompted changes within the group that made the Khmer Rouge’s support dwindle. It officially ceased to exist in 1999, when the last of its leaders surrendered (Leitsinger and Tolan, 2015). Since then, the Khmer have strived to return to a normal life, which, for a society of their history, required bringing the external elements that were part of their identity before the Khmer Rouge Era back into their everyday life. However, the horrors of the more recent past have also made their way into the Khmer Identity. As J. Randall Groves (2014) very eloquently put, “[Cambodia] is Angkor Wat and Hinduism. It is Angkor Thom and Buddhism. But it is Tuol Sleng and stacks of skulls too.” (p. 24).  Buddhism returned almost effortlessly, as it had never really left, but rather been suppressed. The Khmer also rebuilt their economy by bringing back elements of their identity, such as the silk weaving with its roots in the Angkor court, that was later influenced by Chinese commentary and French intervention. These new-old cultural elements were showcased to the world through Cambodia’s thriving tourism industry, which has increased steadily since the start of the millennium and has become Cambodia’s second largest source of foreign income, after the garment industry (Dahles and Horst, 2006 pp. 124-27). New layers of ‘internationality’ have been brought into the new Khmer identity as well, by the refugees who fled the country during the Pol Pot regime and mixed their cultures with that of the countries where they created their new lives, but also by the internationalization of Khmer art. The revival of artistic traditions, sometimes a race against time (Um, 2006, pp. 96-97) has led to the showcasing of Cambodian artist in many cities around the world (Corey, 2014, p. 61). The Khmer have therefore not only begun to restore the external elements that have shaped their identity since their origins, but also brought about a new aspect of its internationality, in which not only do they take in elements from other cultures, but also share their own culture with the rest of the world.


Khmer identity is exclusively Khmer in that it is the result of a unique combination of external influences, both regional and from the colonial era. Indian, Chinese and French elements have been the main shaping forces of Khmer religion and culture, and consequently of Khmer beliefs and values. Therefore, if one attempts to remove all external influence, as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tried to do in the 1970s, what is left is no longer Cambodia, but a de-Khmerizised population, with gaping holes where its culture should be, much like the government fatigues some Khmer Rouge soldiers wore, which had holes in them due to the unit patches being ripped out in the same way that their leaders wanted to rip out from Cambodia what made the Khmer, Khmer. The importance of external elements to the Khmer identity is supported by the quick reincorporation of said elements into Cambodian everyday life in the post-Khmer Rouge Era. This dark chapter has left indents on Khmer identity, but has not stopped it from maintaining its ties to the rest of the world, ties which have been reinforced by the refugees who fled from Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and by the recent exteriorization of Khmer culture and art into the world, which could easily prove to be interesting in the future, at least in that it might allow us a better insight into the Khmer mindset, both before and after the genocide.



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4 thoughts on “Images of Cambodia

  1. Interesting how many regions have in common that their cultures were both influenced by their neighbour nations and by other nations which wanted to take over the region.
    It reminded me of Mexico’s history a bit, which has also dark parts. Spanish people raping Aztec women and children, or slaving them in their native region, just because they considered they were savages and/or influenced by the devil. Bit sad don’t you think?
    But like you said, it may be interesting for people in the future to learn the origins of that culture and probably learn how to avoid the same mistakes, using dialogue instead of violence

    Liked by 1 person

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