Developmental Nationalist Ventriloquism and Cui Bono?

David Lempert, whose distressingly hilarious and obviously self-authored wikipedia page is today’s must read, was mentioned in these pages briefly a few days ago, in which I characterized him as a person promoting a Cham homeland, and compared him to people who know better.

My qualifications on this discussion are extremely limited. I am a fluent Khmer speaker who conducted three years of fieldwork in Cambodia, one year of which was funded by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, and some time of which was funded by the Center for Khmer Studies. I mention these sources of funding to indicate that I share some of Lempert’s funding. I received other funding as well, which is not apparently relevant to this discussion.

Some of my fieldwork included fieldwork in village Kompong Cham, a province inside of Cambodia (not, as Lempert implies, somehow a mixed border area with joint jurisdiction between Vietnam and Cambodia). I do not speak Cham, and although I teach in a religious studies department, my expertise does not include Islam. I do, however, have the capacity for critical thought, and have no dog in this fight.

Lempert, who is an anthropologist, author, social entrepreneur, and development consultant,” wrote an article to the Phnom Penh Post which was poorly titled: “A homeland for the Cham.” Why poorly titled? Because aside from one confusing paragraph, none of the letter explicitly discussed the idea of creating a new homeland for the Cham. Here is that paragraph:

It may not be feasible or possible to “buy” a homeland for the Cham on their ancestral lands or to establish an autonomous region for the Cham in an area between Cambodia and Vietnam, such as Kampong Cham, but the idea at least deserves to be on the table.

Why would the Cham want or deserve a state? (They have homelands – what Lempert clearly means is a state, a nation-state). The argument, which begins in his first paragraph, identifies them as the targets of genocide, and correlates this (proper, in my opinion) fact to the consequences of Nazi defeat for the Zionist movement which eventually culminated in the modern state of Israel.

The Cham deserve ‘better’ than what they currently experience (I agree!), according to Lempert, because they are not only victims of genocide (I agree!), but also because hundreds of years ago, and perhaps even over a thousand years ago, they made significant contributions to the civilizations of Southeast Asia. This is weird, and is correctly identified as part of the way in which Lempert misuses archaeology for his nationalist agenda. See the full article critiquing Lempert here.

There’s a back-and-forth over at Noel’s Southeast Asian Archaeology Blog which should be read – the three respondents to Lempert’s bizarre notions do a better job of decimating his opinion, and I won’t repeat their points here. There are a few points that I will highlight, and in some cases these have been made, or alluded to, elsewhere in that discussion.

  1. Lempert is, as James Scott has pointed out in other contexts, “Seeing like a state.” He assumes that the Cham without a state are by definition a victimized people. This is a deeply troubling and unfounded assumption, regardless of the elements of truth (less access to political power) that run through it. The idea that the creation of a nation-state for the Cham would somehow resolve Cham difficulties is belied by the treatment of the Khmer majority in Cambodia, or the ethnic majority in almost any nation-state. In other words, Lempert promotes a largely discredited but still politically and developmentally popular notion of communal identity as limited to that of the sharing of biological identity. He needs to read some Mahmood Mamdani, on a very different genocide.
  2. He is attempting to speak on behalf of the Cham, without any evidence or apparent authority. His respondents and critics – Bjorn Atle Blengsli, Alison Carter, and  Alberto Perez-Pereiro, are much better positioned to do so, though I hope they do not. Instead, they have mostly limited themselves to pointing out that none of their work – which is lengthy, detailed, based in language fluency and competent fieldwork across the breadth of the country – supports any generalized support among the Cham for any of the proposals Lempert proposes.

    Insofar as his critics do allow themselves to speak ‘on behalf’ to any extent, they argue that even proposals for the creation of a Cham homeland could rebound upon the Cham dangerously, given the nationalist paranoia of some Khmer, and especially the nationalist Khmer who control certain aspects of the state military and police apparatuses.

    Here, I part ways slightly from his critics. While I deplore the fact that Lempert feels it is acceptable to make such proposals (which could, in my opinion, dangerously rebound upon the Cham) without evidence or apparent actual work, I feel that it is simply none of ‘our’ (non-Cham) business. I support Lempert’s gestures in the direction of self-determination for the Cham.

    But this is precisely what his work and writing has thus far short-circuited: he quotes no Cham, either ‘leaders’ or ‘marginal’ folks. He cites no work, either of others or his own. He simply takes a template from one historical experience (that of post-WWII European Jewry) and applies it to present day Cambodia.

    What Lempert is doing is a form of ventriloquism. The Cham do not need more outsiders speaking on their behalf. Indeed, find me anybody who believes they would benefit from that, and I’ll show you somebody who has bought into the ideologies of either national socialism or stalinist communism (hey, if Lempert can imply that his critics are Nazis, I can return the favor).

  3. It is interesting, given Lempert’s own identification as an “anthropologist, author, social entrepreneur, and development consultant,” that his first response to his critics is to cry cui bono?! – Who benefits? He claims that Alison, who is a trained archaeologist, is somehow preserving her turf and her funding by criticizing Lempert’s arguments. This, presumably, is based on his assertion that the preservation of Angkorean friezes depicting historical defeats of the Cham by the Khmer continues the victimization of the Cham by the Khmer (regardless of the fact that the friezes depict successful defense by the Angkorean empire against Cham imperial attacks).

    This game cuts both ways, and while Alison, Bjorn, and Alberto have successfully defended themselves against the cry of cui bono, Lempert has yet to do so.

    I mentioned that his opinion piece was poorly titled, given the little amount of attention given to the issue of nation-state creation for the Cham in the actual letter. Much more of the letter refers to Lempert’s own speciality – the creation of heritage museums and social development enterprises, which would utilize, one supposes, the expertise of someone like Lempert. Lempert’s attempt to turn what should have been a civil discussion into an academic turf pissing contest should be turned right back against him.

Let me end: I don’t have the time to fisk Lempert’s article, or to vet the responses, and indicate the ways in which I agree or disagree. I resent this entire discussion. I resent the shameless self-promotion of Lempert, and his apparent developmental vampirism, which proposes to predate on supposed Cham sentiment (found nowhere by others) in order to benefit himself and his ilk. I resent the association of his critics with ideologies like National Socialism, which in Germany ended with the murder of not only approximately 6 million Jews, but also Romani, communists, homosexuals, and many others besides. I resent his tone, and his association with otherwise credible institutions like the Center for Khmer Studies and the Luce foundation, which are smeared by his behavior. And I resent his assertion that the production of more museums should take priority over the “simple feeding of bellies” in a Least Developed Country where hundreds of thousands go to bed hungry every night [Global Hunger Index position 64, “Alarming”], regardless of their ethnicity or religious commitments (though I agree with his assessment of the KRT)

This is shameful. Lempert, or as he apparently likes to be known, “Super-Lemp,” should return to the United States, where fascism is growing and expanding, like a hive of just-kicked hornets, and see how his development theories work out in this nation-state.

That. is. all.


6 thoughts on “Developmental Nationalist Ventriloquism and Cui Bono?

  1. Pingback: The Cham discussion continues… « Alison in Cambodia

  2. erikwdavis says:

    Here, I part ways slightly from his critics. While I deplore the fact that Lempert feels it is acceptable to make such proposals (which could, in my opinion, dangerously rebound upon the Cham) without evidence or apparent actual work, I feel that it is simply none of ‘our’ (non-Cham) business. I support Lempert’s gestures in the direction of self-determination for the Cham.

    I need to clarify the above statement. My point here, which I made too quickly in the actual post, is that it is the Cham themselves, not Lempert, myself, Alberto, Alison, or Bjorn, who need to determine what it is they want, and what risks they are willing to underwrite.

    This is where I sense (rather than see) a slight difference between Lempert’s critics and myself. While they are concerned with the very real possibility that Lempert’s half-baked proposition will rebound on the Cham, I am not at all opposed to the idea that the Cham might one day (tomorrow, even) get on board with this idea. But it must be the Cham who do so, and not some ‘development consultant’ whose past (paid?) work in developing heritage museum proposals is the basis of a call for a Cham homeland.

  3. Alison says:

    I just wanted to add my two cents ( I am not speaking for Alberto or Bjorn here). I am not sure yet if I would be opposed to the idea of the Cham homeland *if* the idea was coming from the Cham themselves. I will willingly admit that I am a bit jaded after living in Cambodia for almost a year, and so I could not see such a movement turning out well for anyone (Cham, Khmer, Vietnamese etc). So, for that reason I am a bit hesitant to endorse this idea wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, it would be harder to argue against it if it was strongly supported by the Cham community themselves, as you mention.

  4. erikwdavis says:

    Thanks, Alison – I think we agree on the key point here: the Cham need to be in charge of their own efforts, and not be spoken for by pseudo-academic jackassery which could be dangerous for the health of the Cham. Especially when, as in Lempert’s case, this is being done supposedly in the name of Cham rights and culture.

  5. Pingback: None of your Cham business « Cambodia: Details are Sketchy

  6. bestudentagain says:

    Oops, I failed to post my previous comment. In a word, let me share the resentment feeling with you. That’s what I feel throughout the reading of his article “Interpreting Vietnam: Ideology and Newspeak”.

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