Book Review: David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia”

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David Chandler’s short but solid History of Cambodia has since the year 2000 stood as the single most well-regarded history of this small complex nation. Chandler is a Professor of History at Monash University, Melbourne and the author has clearly invested his recent life, not to mention his reputation, in the process of getting this book right. In fact during the 360 pages he often takes time out to discuss the challenges facing the historian as he or she must weigh up the fractured evidence from the previous centuries, and must choose a perspective from which to tell the story. After all, Cambodia – as we discover – has always been a poorly defined entity that somehow exists yet is itself a collision of different cultural forces including Hindu, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese: not mention the various tribes indigenous to Cambodia itself. As Chandler says:

No one knows for certain how long people have lived in what is now Cambodia, where they came from, or what languages they spoke before writing was introduced…whether the early people came originally from what are now China and India and from elsewhere in Southeast Asia is still debated by scholars.

And so Chandler pieces together the early evidence, which is quite scant, and takes care to present the various theories and conclusions that historians have reached since the 19th Century when French historians “discovered” Angkor and began investigating the story behind Cambodia.

Any visitor to Angkor Wat and the collection of temples may recall some of the vividly evocative bas relief carvings which portray life 1,000 years ago, but again, as Chandler points out, these stone records don’t tell the full story. As he assembles, from the evidence available, the story of the Angkor Kings we find their stories, upon investigation, are part legend, part spin on their own part, and partly lost altogether. If the historic landscape lacks written evidence, there is at least some, furnished by Chinese visitors: but how reliably?

Despite these challenges, Chandler succeeds in developing a central thread to his narrative: the idea of Cambodia being a deeply conservative, traditional culture that somehow manages to absorb change and challenge – to incur invasions sometimes – while keeping its core culture intact.

For me, the book can be a little dry – especially when the historical evidence leaves Chandler (and his collective colleagues – whom he generously acknowledges,) simply speculating about what might have happened, and how society may have operated. But it comes alive the moment the French arrive (first as missionaries in the late 18th Century) and when they begin to assert control over Cambodia. Here Chandler’s scholarship is impeccable: citing a wide range of sources as he traces the sometimes smooth, at other time fractious relationship between the Khmer people and the French colonisers.

Here by the early 20th Century we see all the seeds for Cambodians to start opposing foreign control and to turn quietly against the French. Well, not always quietly. In April 1925 is the murder of French tax collector Felix Louis Bardez – an episode told with an electric level of energy by Chandler – in which a whole village, angered at the high tax levies, attacked the Frenchman and his interpreter, and murdered them. A later witness recalled that there was no one murderer: everybody was equally guilty.

From here the narrative accelerates as the events of World War 2 redefine or sharpen Cambodia’s sense of self. We enter the era of the politically opportune Norodom Sihanouk who helps steer Cambodia to independence. But independence, Chandler argues, is a relative term because Cambodia as a small nation has always had to gingerly take sides – with the USA during Lon Nol’s reign as PM, and then with North Vietnam and China. Every decision to side with a bigger force carries a price however, and David Chandler, who in the latest edition of the book steers us into the 21st Century (he extensively reviewed his early editions and added a new chapter,) wonder aloud if Cambodia, (which seems to absorb and occasionally revolt against foreign influence,) can weather the impact of the modern Century. A problem, as he quite fairly sees it, is that Cambodia has a long history of patronage, and that rival groups of Patrons (consider how Hun Sen has ensconced himself as Prime Minister,) show a stubborn inability to compromise, co-operate or share power. Eventually each Patron (whether the French, or Lon Nol or Pol Pot…) loses to a violent overthrow or defeat.

The author wonders if Hun Sen is heading for the same fate given that the PM seems, in the words of the author: “..unprepared to be genuinely responsive to people’s needs.” He puts his hopes and faith in the resilience, talents and desires of the Cambodian people.

Don’t expect an easy read with this book. Not every chapter of Cambodia’s history follows a straightforward narrative arc. However if you are interested in modern Cambodia, then this volume fulfills a necessary place in your need for knowledge. I admire the author for his due care, not just in reporting widely researched facts, but in providing a balanced, thought-provoking perspective.

PROFESSOR DAVID CHANDLER

David Chandler is an Emeritus Professor at Monash University, and holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Michigan Universities.He has authored a number of books relating to the Democratic Kampuchea period and S-21 and was called as an expert in Case 001 of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal for an analysis of the policies that established S-21 and the broad purpose and function of security centres (and S-21 in particular) in Democratic Kampuchea.

For two other book reviews that may interest you: Cambodia’s Curse and a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia.

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