May 15, 2012

THE CULTURE-Cambodia’s National Psyche

Since the glory days of the Angkorian empire of old, the Cambodian people have been on the losing side of many a historical battle, their country all too often a minnow amid the circling sharks. Popular attitudes have been shaped by this history, and the relationship between Cambodia and its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam is marked bu a cocktail of fear, administration and animosity.

Cambodian attitudes towards the Thais and Vietnamese are complex. The Thais aren’t always popular, as some Cambodia feel the Thais fail to acknowledge their cultural debt to Cambodia and generally look down on their poorer neighbor. Cambodian attitudes towards the Vietnamese are more ambivalent. There is a certain level of mistrust, as many feel the Vietnamese are out to colonise their country. Many Khmers still call the lost Mekong Delta Kampuchea Krom, meaning ‘Lower Cambodia’. However, it is balanced with a grudging respect for their ‘liberation” from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But when liberation became occupation in the 1980s, the relationship soured once more.

At first glance, Cambodia appears to be a nation of shiny, happy people, but look deeper and it is a country of contradictions. Light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate, life and death-all are visible on a journey through the kingdom. Most telling of all is the evidence of the nation’s glorious past set against its tragic present. Angkor is everywhere on the flag, the national beer, cigarettes, hotels and guesthouses – anything and everything. It’s a symbol of nationhood and fierce pride, a two fingured salute to the world – no matter how ugly things got in the bad old days, the Cambodians built Angkor Wat and it doesn’t come bigger than that.

Jayavarman VII, Angkor’s greatest king, is nearly as omnipresent as his temples. The man that vanquished the occupying Chams and took the empire to its greatest glories is a national that.Contrast this with the abyss into which the nation was sucked during the years of the Khmers Rouge. Pol Pot is a dirty word in Cambodia due to the death and suffering he inflicted on the country. Whenever you hear his name, it will be connected with stories of endless personal tragedy, of dead brothers, mothers and babies, from which most Cambodians have never had the change to recover. As the Khmer Rouge trial edges forward, no one has tasted justice, the whys and hows remain unanswered and the older generation must live in the shadow of this trauma.

If Jayavarman VII and Angkor are loved and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge despised. Then the mercurial Sihanoul, the last of the god-kings who has ultimately shown his human side, is somewhere in between. Many Cambodians love him as the “father of nation”, but to others he is the man who failed the nation by his association with the Khmer Rouge. In many ways, his contradictions match those of contemporary Cambodia. Understand Sihanouk and what he has had to survive and you will understand much of Cambodia.
(Lonely Planet, p44)


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