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Re-writing the history of Cambodia

Categories: East Asia, Cambodia, History, Literature

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 [1]

In a series of interviews aired on Khmer Radio Free Asia [2], 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 [3]

“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 [4] 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 [5], Jayavarman VII is perceived as the great civilizer, while Pol Pot as the great destroyer.

Blogger Sopheak felt [6] both Radio Free Asia and Khmer-language academic should apologize the Khmer nation.