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Re-writing the history of Cambodia

Cambodia’s most prominent literary scholar Keng Vannsak lately unveiled a shocking finding of the life of twelfth-century King Jayavarman VII. As a Buddhist ruler of the Khmer Empire, the sage king who governed the kingdom during its most glorious period in the history, is regarded with great respect and widely known for a potent symbol of national pride for present day Cambodians.

king jayavarman vii
Image from Wikipedia article on King JayavarmanVII

In a series of interviews aired on Khmer Radio Free Asia, Keng Vannsak, now in his 80s, claimed the ancient king was “an utterly ruthless monarch; and that it was he who caused the downfall of the Khmer empire by building too many temples.” A young poet, who often quotes the literary works of the scholar, was astonishingly disappointed by the claims as he expresses that

“As a well-respected scholar, Mr. Vannsak should know which source is worth quoting or analyzing. In this case, however, he shows a complete disregard for academic standards. And it serves him nothing but to weaken his credibility.”


Yet, Thom Vanak believes the pro-French scholar's comment makes sense to him. Rather being silent, he sent a supportive letter to Radio Free Asia editor to keep broadcasting the interview even though it has outraged many and sparked criticism.

Dear Khmer RFA,
Professor Keng Vansak is well respected by majority of us here in Srok Khmer. His insightful research is well received everywhere. Please continue to have the interview session with the professor or otherwise we would be left with the annals of darkness in our Khmer history. Sincerely,
Thom Vanak
Svay Rieng

History has its shadow. Historians study past human activities by making attempt to answer historical questions through the study of written documents, although historical research is not limited merely to these sources. Scholars of ancient Khmer civilization have practically no written records to draw on significant parts of the king's life. However, in historical fiction titled the King's Last Song, Canadian-born author Geoff Ryman describes how the legendary Jayavarman VII (Victory Shield) united the nation and founded the great temples at Angkor. This is simply what Cambodians in this 21st century believe. In the novel, Jayavarman VII is perceived as the great civilizer, while Pol Pot as the great destroyer.

Blogger Sopheak felt both Radio Free Asia and Khmer-language academic should apologize the Khmer nation.

8 comments

  • Don Jameson

    I have known Keng Vannsak since the early 1970s when he was the intellectual force behind Lon Nol’s Khmer-Mon Institute, which promoted a higly nationalistic and irridentist view of Khmer history and Cambodia’s current place in the world (and I was a political officer at the American Embassy in Phnom Penh). Needless to say his ideas did not prevent the ultimate collapse of the regime or have any other positive effect on the development of Camnbodian society. Keng Vannsak has always espoused contrarian and questionably based theories of Cambodian history and culture, including the idea that Buddhism was the ultimte cause of Cambodia’s decline from regional dominiance. The argument that Jayavarman helped to cause the decline through his relentless focus on construction of new temples may be closer to the truth than many of Vannsak’s other ideas but this is a matter of speculation that probably cannot be proven either way. Overall most Cambodians seem to prefer some spice in thier history, whether or not this is based on sound evidence and are always quick to engage in controversy about this or almost anything else. So in many respects Keng Vannsak fills a continuing need for new and sometimes rather bizarre ideas. I am sure he will be missed by many when he finally leaves the scene. Don Jameson

  • This is his own idea, so don’t blame him and others…… it is really we respect to King Jayavarman VII, So Khmer people are peaceful and good attitude (Peace).

  • […] You’d think so, given the response to Keng Vannsak’s recent restatement of the theory that Jayavarman VII may not, after all, have been the most wonderful human being to ever have lived. There’s a lot that goes into the worshipful attitudes people have of Jayavarman VII, ranging from straightfoward nationalism to the symbolism of hope an justice. Whatever one thinks of these things, and I tend to think about them a lot, it remains obvious that such worshipful attitudes, for whatever reason, get in the way of any attempt to systematize and understand Cambodia’s history. […]

  • […] 原文:Re-writing the history of Cambodia 作者:Tharum Bun 译者:foolfitz 校对:Portnoy […]

  • Peter

    A good rule of thumb when it comes to ancient civilizations are the size of their monuments. The bigger the monuments = the more inhumane the society that built them. If Pol Pot had managed to force the nation to build something lasting and spectacular, it would probably have drawn admiring tourists 500 years from now.

  • SE

    The only famous thing Pol Pot built was a massive human grave. They all should be punsihed for their crimes. If we don’t do something, they will all get away by escaping through their own aging death. Let’s support the internation trails to punish them so no other Khmer or human should follow this horrific example. Than their graves (Chetdai) will be drawn for tourists to admire 500 years from now.

  • កួនខ្មែរ១នាក់ KHMER KID ONE

    To say “Scholars of ancient Khmer civilization have practically no written records” is completely wrong. The Siam attacks at Angkor Thom had burned and destroyed almost Khmer record documents, but still lucky there are some at Khmer pagodas today and some still on the stone inscription.

  • I would have to read the whole transcript of the full extent of Mr. Keng’s claims, but from what is written here, his ideas do not seem all that controversial. The building spree Jayavarman VII undertook is often cited as having exhausted the nation’s resources, and the spread of Buddhism in the Khmer Empire is often likened to the role Christianity played in the downfall of the Roman Empire. Both may have been contributing factors to the decline of the Khmer Empire. However, the notion that Jayavarman VII was “ruthless” does not jive with his reputation as the Empire’s first and greatest Buddhist King. Furthermore, in addition to the many temples, Jayavarman VII is also credited with building roads, rest stops, numerous hospitals, libraries, etc., which indicate some kind of civic consciousness. In a time when rule was absolute and king was god, such civic-minded construction lends me to believe the King Jayavarman VII’s concern for his people was real and sincere.

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