A Personal Struggle to Balance Khmer Nationalism and Peacebuilding

Sophat Soeung

March, 2008

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

I have vivid childhood memories of the frustration of having been assigned by my father to copy short paragraphs in Khmer script, which I found very difficult compared to writing in the Romanized German language. What I did not know at the time was that my father's assignment would have lifelong impact on my personal identity and the dilemma I will have in compromising this identity with the visions of peacebuilding.

I was born in Cambodia, an ethnic Khmer, but between the ages of 6 and 11, my family lived in Berlin, Germany, where we were physically, if not emotionally, distant from ongoing civil conflict back home. My parents did their best to instill in their children the pride in their Khmer (Cambodian) national identity, yet growing up in a German cultural setting at such an early age, it was inevitable for me to develop a unique German identity despite my parents' conscious effort and my own young self-consciousness. This is where all my identity confusion and basis for peacebuilding interest started.

Despite my sense of belonging to German culture, as a foreigner, I was constantly reminded of my nationality when faced with racial discrimination, which was, unfortunately, an everyday reality in Berlin in those days — perhaps even today. On a daily basis, I would ask myself, "Why do some Germans hate us so much? What have we done wrong?" — questions to which I would later find a logical answer when I returned to Cambodia.

After the 1993 elections, my family returned to Cambodia, where despite the difficult cultural transitions, I would put the racial discrimination behind me and live in a place where I would gradually develop a "real" Khmer identity, as my parents had wished. Khmers are the indigenous and dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising some 90 percent of the population (The World Factbook, 2008), making Cambodia one of the most homogenous countries in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Cambodian nationalism is synonymous with Khmer nationalism.

Over time, I would be exposed to elements of Khmer ethno-nationalism, from school and the political media. In high school, most history books reminded us of Cambodia's glorious past during the Khmer Empire, a period some ten centuries ago, and how this glory gradually came to an end with the arrival of the Siems (Siamese/Thais) and Yuons (Vietnamese) "invaders" from the north. We would be taught of the countless heroic wars that mighty Khmer kings fought against these invaders, and the architectural masterpieces they built at Angkor — the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire. With regards to the Thais, we would be told that Angkor fell completely to Siamese forces in 1431 (Chandler, 79) who carried off the whole Khmer court on which the modern-day Thais would build their cultural and political institutions. This instilled a sense of Khmers being culturally and historically superior to the Thais, despite their current military inferiority. The issue is confounded by the fact that there are conflicting points in the Thai version of the history. With regards to the Vietnamese, most history books will discuss the loss of Kampuchea Krom (Kiernan, 1996, 1) to Vietnam in 1949. Furthermore, the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in 1979 in response to the Khmer Rouge's unrealistic attempts to "liberate Kampuchea Krom" — an intervention which toppled the Khmer Rouge regime — has been presented by nationalists as another Vietnamese attempt to conquer Cambodia; the border treaties that were made with the Vietnamese-installed government are considered illegal. All these events of ancient and contemporary history of Cambodia shaped both a sense of pride and victimization in many Khmers.

Apart from the academics, nationalism has been a powerful political tool. Many political parties employ anti-Vietnamese or anti-Thai rhetoric during election campaigns. We would often hear the terms Yuon and Siem instead of Vietnamese and Thais — the two former being politically incorrect words — used in these campaigns to mobilize ordinary Cambodians during the elections. Being educated in this kind of environment, I had gradually come to identify myself as a nationalist — internalizing hatred against Thais and Vietnamese and, in a strange way, better understanding the rationales behind the discriminations I once faced in Germany.

History of the Rise of Khmer Nationalism and Distrust for the Neighbors

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as "an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (Anderson, 1991, p. 6). In his words, "it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Ibid.). Also, "the nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind" (Anderson, 7). Nations are "imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. ? nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state" (Ibid.). He finally argues that, "it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings" (Ibid.). Nationalism, Anderson points out, is rooted in the cultural systems of religious community and the dynastic realm (p.12).

In general, Khmer nationalism draws inspiration from a proud and shared legacy of the ancient Angkorian civilization, and all successive Cambodian regimes have displayed the image of the ruins of the famed Angkor Wat temple on their national flag. The rise of such ideology after World War II is attributed to the struggle for independence from France. According to David Chandler (1993), Khmer nationalism is rooted in two trends: The first was the rise of national and cultural consciousness in response to French reform towards "modernization" (p. 171). In 1943, The French authority introduced a plan to replace the forty-seven-letter Khmer alphabet with the roman one, but the move met resistance from both the Buddhist institution (the sangha) and King Sihanouk, and the independent Cambodian government in the later years officially moved to stop romanization. (Ibid., pp. 169-70)

Some scholars even see the infamous Pol Pot regime of Democratic Kampuchea as a socialist-nationalist revolution (Vickery, 1986, 35) to transform Cambodia into a utopian society. Pol Pot himself envisioned a "return" to an agrarian society with intensive, nonseasonal "permanent irrigation," modeling on the mistaken interpretation of the canal networks at Angkor (Kiernan, 8). In addition, the Khmer Rouge regime also had a Khmer purification program which aimed at reducing the ethnic minorities in Cambodia — including Chams, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thais, Lao — from 20 percent to 1 percent of the total population, and although the majority Khmers comprised the largest number of victims, ethnic minorities were "virtually erased from history" by the regime (Kiernan, 251).

In contemporary Cambodia, Khmer nationalism is again drawn upon both the pride and victimization of history. History textbooks and elders alike would raise our awareness of what in John Paul Lederach (2005) terms as "lived history" (p. 141). On the one hand, we were are constantly reminded of the ancient Khmer people who were "inherently warriors" and through their wars with neighboring nations, built an unparalleled empire in Southeast Asia. The symbols of Angkor Wat can be found everywhere, and nearly so is the statue of King Jayavarman VII — the greatest of all Khmer warrior kings. This reference of violence to the kings also instills a sense that modern Khmers are inherently violent due to their "warrior heritage." On the other hand, we are constantly told about the sufferings of Khmer people under the rule of the Siamese or Thais many centuries ago and as recently as 1940s when Thailand retook control of Cambodia's northwestern provinces, as well as the loss of territories and suffering under Vietnamese control. One story I particularly remember my parents telling me was "Kompup Tae Ong" or "The Spilling of Ong Tea". It alleges many atrocities committed by the Vietnamese on the Khmers some centuries ago during the construction of Vinh Te Canal when parts of Cambodia was under Vietnamese control, but most noted was when Khmers were enslaved and buried up to their heads, which would then be used as the stones for the stove on which they would boil their kettle of tea. The lessons from these stories, I was told, was to never trust either the Vietnamese or the Thais — the historical enemies — because despite Khmers befriending them, they would always be dishonest and regard us as unequal and only want to prey more on our territories.

The above stories are only part of the larger source of centuries-old tension and distrust of the two neighbors — the Thais and Vietnamese. As mentioned earlier, the distrust has deep historical basis. Countless wars over centuries with the Thais or Siems and Vietnamese or Yuons have resulted in Cambodian chronicle identifying the two neighbors as "historical enemies." The words Siem and Yuon are Khmer words that, as a result, have taken on derogative connotations. The Thais, who are culturally similar, are generally seen as competing for cultural heritage and territories. From a Khmer perspective, Thais attempt to make a disconnect between the ancient builders of the Angkorian civilization and the contemporary Khmers of Cambodia. This was the major reason behind the 2003 anti-Thai riots that burned down the Thai embassy and businesses in Phnom Penh. It was rumored that a Thai actress had said that she would not come to perform in Cambodia unless the temple of Angkor Wat be returned to Thailand. Although the news report turned out to be false, immediate condemnations came from both government officials and ordinary people alike. The riots marked the first ever large-scale violence and suspension of diplomatic relations between two ASEAN member countries.

The Vietnamese who are culturally distinct from Khmers are mainly seen as competing for territories and resources. The expansion of Vietnam has historically meant the destruction of the Champa kingdom and the loss of the Mekong delta for Cambodia. The encroachment has resulted in Khmer bitterness toward Vietnamese (Anderson, 131) in general, whether of government or immigrants. During the colonial period, the French treated Khmers as inferior to Vietnamese and settled ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia to work in the administration (Anderson, 129-30). This further rekindled the anti-Vietnamese sentiments. Perhaps the strongest source of anti-Vietnamese-based nationalism was the political rhetoric to mobilize support following the territorial loss of Kampuchea Krom or Cochin-China in 1949 when France ceded the area to Vietnam. Kampuchea Krom — literally meaning "Lower Cambodia" — is the Khmer name of the former French colony of Cochin-China which geographically occupies the Mekong delta of southern Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh City or Prey Nokor and Phu Quoc island or Koh Tral in Khmer. The significance of the loss of this territory was the separation of millions of ethnic Khmers living in the Mekong delta from their motherland and the loss of Cambodia's historical access to the sea. This forced the post-colonial government of Cambodia to build a new port city named Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand in the 1960s. Ethnic Khmers in southern Vietnam have not come to be termed Khmer Krom (Lower Khmers) and have embarked on a struggle to greater political recognition in both Cambodia and Vietnam.

In coming to terms with the unthinkable atrocities by the Khmer Rouge against their own people, many Khmers suspect that foreigners, especially the Chinese and Vietnamese were behind the genocide in order to eliminate the Khmer race as a whole. Such assertion, however, is clearly based on ethnic grounds and forgets to take into consideration the fact that both minorities were equally targeted by the Khmer Rouge.

Having lived in this "lived history" of hatred, it was inevitable for me to develop a form of national identity based on hatred towards the neighboring nations or their ethnic members in Cambodia. I shared with many other Cambodians the dream of one day reclaiming lost territories and uniting all Khmer people that have been separated from Cambodia by the current state boundaries. I could truly claim myself to be a nationalist at the time. Within Cambodia, there has also been little attention given to the lives of ethnic minorities, and decades of war and assimilation has virtually made every Cambodian a "Khmer." Except for the Chinese and Vietnamese, all other minorities including the Muslim Chams, and indigenous hill tribes were labeled "Khmer." In this regard, Cambodians rarely think of their country as ethnically diverse, and like most Khmers, I also had no interest in learning more about the lifestyles of Cambodia's minorities.

However, major life events in the last five years have left me questioning my nationalistic rationales. One of these events was the 2003 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh. The weeklong build-up of anti-Thai sentiments following the alleged comments by a Thai actress was further legitimized by official anti-Thai rhetoric and ban of all Thai movies in Cambodia. I was not disproving of the Government's measures on the issue, but sudden news of the burned Thai embassy and businesses captured both a sense of satisfaction and anger in me — satisfaction because I shared the grievances with other Cambodians, but anger because as a student of law, I was disturbed with the government's poor protection of a foreign embassy and allegation that the rioters were students, even students of law like myself. I knew too well of the consequences of such unlawful acts on the people's and country's image. The following diplomatic, economic, and political consequences further brought the sense of "ambivalence" of my national pride. From that point on, I realized that the underlying causes of the conflict had to be addressed and that chauvinism is one major cause.

The following years also saw my first contacts with Vietnamese people. Sometime in those years, my family rented part of our house to a Chinese man with a Vietnamese wife. The Chinese man did not speak any Khmer but his Vietnamese wife spoke broken Khmer. However, she did not initially reveal her real ethnic identity, likely out of fear of our not renting the house to them. She would tell us that she was born in Cambodia, but after the civil war broke out, escaped to Singapore, and then to Vietnam, where she picked up Vietnamese. We did however rent part of the house and over the years of living as neighbors she gained our trust and gradually revealed her real identity. In 2005, I had the rare opportunity to travel to Vietnam for medical purposes, to Ho Chi Minh City, a place any Khmer nationalist would call Prey Nokor or former port of Cambodia. Our Vietnamese neighbor was extremely helpful in visa issues, travel arrangements, and network settings for my family who did not have any contacts there. Surprisingly, she was very mindful in even using the Khmer names for places in Vietnam. When traveling into Vietnam, I could not help thinking of traveling into the "lost territory" but once there, I was impressed by the hospitality and helpfulness of ordinary Vietnamese people. I suddenly realized that the animosity in Cambodia was likely one-sided, and unknown to the majority of Vietnamese, and this opened new opportunities for improvements. My journey to Europe later that year, further re-enforced my new vision of harmonious ethnic relations as I witnessed for the first time long-standing animosities between Germans and the French and Poles being replaced by cooperation and tolerance. In the later years, my interest in peacebuilding led to the discovery of a Cambodian youth organization that worked on peacebuilding with neighboring countries, and I have ever since been an active member ever since.

Remaining Challenges to Peacebuilding

Despite the recent good diplomatic relations between Cambodia and its neighbors, on a people-to-people level, relations remain fragile. In addition, possible new sources of conflict are emerging. For one thing, the return of peace and stability in Cambodia has unfortunately also created social space for extreme nationalism and rekindling of past animosities against the "common enemies." The large Cambodian Diaspora which is the legacy of the civil war serves to be another source of nationalism, arguably a more extreme form of nationalism that has sustained the animosities back in Cambodia or even incited more hatred. More Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia has only provoked more anti-Vietnamese rhetoric among politicians and nationalists. And the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia continue to live in fear and discrimination (Myers, The Cambodia Daily).

Perhaps a new yet potentially more problematic dynamic to these relations is the issue of millions of indigenous Khmer people in both Thailand and Vietnam. In the wake of recent opening up of Vietnam to the world, Khmers Krom worldwide have intensified their struggle for self-determination and greater recognition from the international community. Similarly, following the recent loosening of Thai policies in favor of preservation of indigenous culture, Northern Khmers in northeastern Thai provinces have suddenly awakened to promoting their ethnic consciousness and identity and making stronger connections with their fellow Khmers across the border.

Apart from these issues, there remains sensitive land and maritime border disputes with the two neighboring countries. A recent diplomatic row over Cambodia's unilateral push for the Preah Vihear temple to be enlisted as a UNESCO world heritage site has stirred up centuries-old tensions and caused concern about a renewed conflict with Thailand. The dispute over the ownership of the temple went to the International Court of Justice which ruled in favor of Cambodia in 1962, but the areas around the temple have since remained a sensitive issue between the two states.

Moving On: Balancing Nationalism with Peacebuilding?

Despite the challenges that lie is any peacebuilding efforts, I have come to see the unfortunate events as bringing the issues to surface and providing opportunity to strategically transform the situation, rather than just finding short-term solutions. Since the issue of ethnic relations in Cambodia has not been widely discussed, it is now time to address the fragile ethnic relations through awareness raising and improved policies, which will hopefully encourage cultural understanding between the different ethnic groups both in Cambodia and in nearby countries. Having lived abroad as part of a minority group, I see myself as a good asset for peacebuilding cause. My travel experiences to Europe and America have reaffirmed my belief in the virtues of ethnic pluralism. This, I believe, will be a small contribution to ASEAN's (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) goal of integration in 2015.

I have certainly come a long way in my struggle to balance my strong sense of national identity and the vision of peacebuilding. My efforts will likely be seen by nationalist Khmers as at best submission and at worse treason — a risk faced by many peacebuilders. I have, however, found that these two perspectives do not necessarily have to be contrasting. I am certainly not ready to shed my own nationalistic pride, but at the same time I have come to appreciate other cultures and perspectives, and befriended with people I would normally call enemies. I now pride myself on the fact that Cambodia is a multi-cultural society and hope to use my experience to help create more cultural and inter-ethnic understanding and tolerance in other Khmers who are generally considered as gentle and peace-loving people. I have never been to Thailand or befriended with a Thai, and have yet to break down the cultural and ethnic barriers. My little quest of balancing the two philosophies is certainly only the beginning of what I hope to be my contribution to peacebuilding efforts in Southeast Asia.


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Chandler, D. P. (1993). A History of Cambodia. 2nd ed. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Kiernan, B. (1996). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lederach, J. P. (2005). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meas, S. & Miletic, T. (2007). "Peace Research: Understanding Inter-Ethnic Relations and National Identity in Cambodia," in Cambodia: The Alliance for Conflict Transformation, 89. Retrieve at http://actcambodia.org/pdf/ACT%20Final. pdf.

Myers, B. (2002, July 6-7). "The Outsiders: Cambodia's Ethnic Vietnamese Continue to Live in the Shadow of Discrimination and Hatred," in The Cambodia Daily. Retrieved March 17, 2008 at http://www .camnet.com.kh/cambodia.daily/selected-features/vietnamese.htm.

Vickery, M. (1986). Kampuchea: Politics, Economics and Society. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publications Inc.

[1] The word "Cambodia" or "Cambodian" in the Khmer language is the equivalent of Kampuchea, deriving from Kambuja, which only refers to the country; the people are called "Khmer." To the ordinary Cambodian, their country is Srok Khmae, literally meaning "Khmer Land." According the 1993 Constitution and national law, the national identity is "Khmer," but the term also refers specifically to the dominant ethnic group. See Meas, S. & Miletic, T. (2007). Peace Research: Understanding Inter-Ethnic Relations and National Identity in Cambodia. Cambodia: The Alliance for Conflict Transformation, 89. Retrieve at http://actcambodia.org/pdf/ACT%20Final. pdf.

[2] The territory of Cochin-China was ceded to Vietnam on 4 June 1949 through a French law. Read more at http://khmerkrom.org/eng/?q=node/18.

[3] "The idea of lived history is to capture a more expansive view of time, which will vary from younger to older people. My lived history is what I have experienced directly in my lifetime, which is more expansive than my children's but much less so than my grandparents'. ... these are not experiences that were conveyed to me by others, but a history I have seen, touched, and tasted. Intriguingly, a local or national community has within it multiple ranges of lived history. The older people have experienced events that go back across decades, the youngest less than a decade. Thus, the circle of lived history for a community can run from one to about eight, maybe nine, decades." (Lederach, 2005, 141)

[4] Also see Seanglim Bit (1991). The Warrior Heritage: A Psychological Perspective of Cambodian Trauma. California: Seanglim Bit (Self-Published).

[5] See U.S. State Department Report at http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rpt/20565.ht m, retrieved March 17, 2008.

[6] See ICJ case concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear at http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?sum=284&code=ct&p1=3&a mp;p2=3&cas e=45&k=46&p3=5.

[7] See http://www.worldpoliticsrevie w.com/article.aspx?id=184.