cambodia, read

Review of ‘Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy’


Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy, by Astrid Norén-Nilsson, is an excellent book which I strongly recommend Cambodia-watchers obtain and read. I wrote a review of it for the Mekong Review earlier in the year, and that review is free to read for the week. You can access the review here:


religous studies

Hitchens, Bolivar, Chavez, and Necrophilia: Deathpower in the Media

Christopher Hitchens is a hack.  Here’s how I know.  A non-hack would situate a seemingly weird story in context, rather than attempt to exaggerate its supposed uniqueness to demonize an enemy.  He’s also smart, so I can’t give him the excuse that Hitch is just stupid.  See, if there’s one thing I’m pretty well-trained in, it’s the theory of necrophilia. Seriously. It’s at the heart of much of my work on death rituals, though I focus less on the psychoanalytic aspects of the theory than I do in the practices, and the commentaries on those.

So, while I’m happy to have no less of a prose stylist than Christopher Hitchens address my topic of choice, he presents it as news, when it’s nothing more than another chance for him to lob his anti-Left IEDs into the interwebz. First, let me be clear: there are great reasons to criticize Chavez, though these criticisms are rarely shared by those who most loudly criticize him. Nope, the people whose criticisms of Chavez get heard are right-wing journos like Simon Romero (his NYT page) and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, who was a prolific writer of left-oriented journalism prior to his right-wing conversion has spent his time since advocating “The Clash of Civilizations,” attacking supposed “Islamo-Fascism,” attempting to transform George Orwell into a conservative fellow-traveller, and sneering at any and all leftist attempts to pry the fingers of the neo-liberal regime away from their necks.

So, when Hitch starts running on and on about Chavez’ necrophiliac love of Simon Bolivar, I get to say ‘balderdash.’ Also, would someone please check the Hitch’s sources? This is o l d news. And it’s much much bigger than Venezuela. In what remains, I make two points by snarkily referring to three texts which should have served to deflate Hitchens’ and Romero’s ‘graverobbing’ rhetoric. First: Chavez’ idealization of the Liberator is very very old news. Second: this ‘grave-robbing’ by Chavez is classic nationalist ritual. This is hardly ‘graverobbing,’ but instead ‘nationalist mortuary ritual’ of an extraordinarily common type. The characterization that Hitchens and Romero are involved in is disingenuous at best; Hitchens at the very least should be aware of the way Chavez’ worship of Bolivar falls very squarely in the most common of national rituals (sure, it’s still weird, but hey – humans are weird).

First of all, Chavez’s idealization of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, is hardly unusual in South America. Continue reading


Preah Vihear and the 'Former Khmer Rouge'

The conflict over the temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding 1.6-1.8 sq. miles of land continues, like a constantly recurring nightmare. It’s Nietzschean in its aspect of banal and violent repetition, but not nearly as inspiring or enlightening.

The United Nations’ Security Council had agreed to hear Cambodia’s complaint against Thailand’s incursion into the territory, couched as the abrogation of national sovereignty. In countries as touchy about lost territory and national sovereignty as Thailand and Cambodia, bringing such a complaint to an international body is big stuff. But then, at Cambodia’s request, they canceled the meeting, and are currently, reportedly, involved in a second round of talks.

Whether this has something to do with yesterday’s CPP-claimed massive win in Cambodia’s national elections is anybody’s guess – and lots of people are doing just that, including comparisons to 2003’s election. Was Hun Sen merely waiting until after the elections? Will he now settle quickly, having used nationalist sentiment to buoy his party’s big win? Or is he as genuinely interested in this issue as the majority of Khmer people seem to be (I make no personal declarations of support or detraction here – just noting the preference).

Of course, Thailand’s national sovereignty is important to national pride for reasons different from Cambodia’s. Thailand builds much of its self-image on the idea that they were ‘not colonized,’ and in fact are exceptional in this regard among their neighbors. This gives them the sense that they are exceptional not merely as a matter of historical accident, but as a matter of national destiny, national character, and relative national worth.

Cambodia, on the other hand, finds itself deeply invested in its territory and national sovereignty precisely because of it’s self-image as a once-great former empire, ruling “all of mainland Southeast Asia,” whose territory, national self-respect, and former greatness has been slowly and repeatedly eroded through the immoral, and duplicitous actions of its neighbors and its european predators. This leads to the connection between the recovery of lost territory and lost national pride.

And this raises the specter – again – of the “Former Khmer Rouge.” I’ve been blogging about this topic for awhile now. In 2006 I noted that

The question of ‘former khmer rouge’ constantly recurrs, like acid after a bad meal. Many people were Khmer Rouge, and are therefore ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ but in an example of social common sense, it seems that the appelation “Former Khmer Rouge” is most often applied to those who use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral, often regardless of whether or not the people in question are actually former cadre or not.

This has been noticed by others in the metonymic use of the word “Pol Pot” to signify simply “Khmer Rouge Soldiers,” though in both cases it needs to be carefully noted that these are post-experiential uses, since the Khmer Rouge never referred to themselves as Khmer Rouge (They were the minions of Democratic Kampuchea, or more universally, simply “Angkar,” the ‘organization’), and Pol Pot was not widely known inside of Cambodia until after 1979, and became famous largely through the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. But people are still referred to as ‘Pol Pots’ or as ‘Former Khmer Rouge,’ in a way that acts as political shorthand for a shared, constructed historical consciousness.

After a recent spate of articles referencing, again, the “Former Khmer Rouge,” this time their involvement with the Preah Vihear conflict, I feel obliged to revisit this idea, and also to reformulate it. When the international press refers to ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ they tend to signify only the aspect I pointed to in my earlier post – the idea that the Khmer Rouge use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral. This is the major implication in current reportage on this – ‘isn’t it horrifying, or amusing, or ironic, or <whatever>,’ the articles seem to imply, ‘that these former Khmer Rouge fighters are now fighting on behalf of the current government?’

These uses miss the fact that while this image of the Khmer Rouge is very strong within Cambodia as well, there is another, equally potent image of the Khmer Rouge fighter within Cambodia, one that is not shared without Cambodia’s borders: the Khmer Rouge as powerful nationalist – those who will defend the country at any cost. This image was constructed primarily after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were forced to the Thai border. The Thai took in a few refugees, whom they housed in horrific camps, and also began re-arming the ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ this time to fight against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge would almost certainly have disappeared as a plausible fighting force without this rearming.

One of the upshots of this was the continuation – for nearly 20 full years – of the civil war in Cambodia. During the forced conscription of the K5 program in Cambodia, young people were drafted to go plant landmines and cut down trees on the Northwest Frontier, and where they died in proportions similar to the period of 1975-1979, under Democratic Kampuchea. During this period, the Khmer Rouge progressively shed their communist ideology and practices. Never practitioners of anything resembling a ‘mature’ communism, it was perhaps particularly easy to shed. What remained was the rabid nationalism of the groups –  a nationalism which predated 1979, but which was now their sole rationale.

With this in mind, let’s read again some of the recent quotes in which “Former Khmer Rouge” fighters talk about Preah Vihear. For instance, when they say, “I am read to fight the Thais.” What are they saying? And how? Here’s a lengthy quote from a recent article on the issue from Bronwyn Sloan:

Former fighters say they would be at war already if Prime Minister Hun Sen had just said the word, but instead he and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expected to be handsomely returned to office after the elections, have urged restraint. Some are frustrated.

“I only have one leg, and I am old, but my former troops are still in Preah Vihear, and I am willing to give military advice or any other assistance I can to protect Cambodian sovereignty,” said former Khmer Rouge fighter Try Nin, 56.

“We are former Khmer Rouge. We are not scared of foreign aggressors. We respect the government’s decision to meet the Thais with diplomacy, but if that fails, everyone here is ready to fight.”

Former photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Toul Sleng torture centre turned CPP commune leader, Nhem En, 47, who claims Anlong Veng’s several thousand voters are 99 percent CPP, agreed.

“I am ready to fight the Thais. All we wait for is an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We don’t want war – we want peace and development. But we need tourists, and while the Thais do this, the tourists do not come.

“Thais already have their own problems in their south,” he said, referring to Muslim insurgency. “Why do they want an extra problem?”

Note the repeated assertions of loyalty to Hun Sen (though, given the source – a CPP commune leader – the reality might be somewhat different). But note also the tone of impatience and readiness to fight: There is no stated preference for diplomatic solutions, merely a willingness to abide by the Cambodian government’s decision to meet the Thais. Nope – the stated preference is for fighting, dying, and protecting the nation.

It will be interesting to see how these fighters feel about the government if it quickly settles with the Thai after the election win.


Preah Vihear

I’ve got my own land conflicts right now, which have prevented my covering this as well as I should have done – my ex slumlord is trying to stick it to me on my much-needed security deposit – but nothing like what Cambodia and Thailand are going through.

And it must be said, though most of what you get out of Thailand – and hence out of the international press, which ignores Cambodian media (Asia News Network insists on calling Preah Vihear by its Thai name, Phra Viharn) – is that this is somehow a ‘confusing’ issue, and that there is a possibility for a ‘win-win’ situation.

Meanwhile, Thai citizens who live at the border are having their livelihoods destroyed by the PAD thugs, Thai businessmen are fleeing Cambodia, a popular boycott of Thai goods has erupted in Cambodia (see especially Mama Noodle), and Cambodian villagers are fleeing the area for their safety.

It’s not confusing, unless you are willfully blind. The temple has been settled since 1962, though crazy nationalists in Thailand, under the current guise of the PAD, keep using it as an opportunistic issue to gain power. The matter of land has been settled for over a century – since 1907, in fact. (The only party to that treaty that has a legitimate reason to complain would appear to be the Cambodians, who unlike the Thai, were a colony at that point and had no say in the border demarcation). The actual documents settling this, along with some straight talk on the matter, can be found via DetailsAreSketchy’s post here. As DAS put it:

If Thailand has thus far pilloried the idea of ASEAN intervention, the thought of Security Council involvement must leave Thai officials reaching for the hemlock.

There is a reason for that. The treaty of 1907, which Thailand ratified, is the legal basis for the Thai-Cambodia border. No matter how you try to massage it, Thailand is clearly in violation of that treaty. Under the scrutiny of independent third parties, it will become impossible for Thailand to deny that reality — which is why Thailand would really rather no one look too closely.

Wait – what was that about ASEAN and the security council? Well, Thailand, with much more international power, prestige, and especially military might (by serving as the United State’s security node in mainland Southeast Asia for over half a century now), definitely wants to prevent any external body from adjudicating this matter. As noted by DAS above, that’s because any actual examination of the relevant documents gives the case straight to Cambodia.

So of course Thailand doesn’t want ASEAN to weigh in on the matter. They won’t even talk about it with Cambodia anymore, leaving their only preferred option – military might – clear. And they’re in relatively good stead here, since ASEAN has an explicit non-intervention in internal affairs policy, designed to placate thug regimes like those of Burma. But, ASEAN has also been indicating an increased willingness to abandon that policy in the interests of preventing widespread catastrophe and instability. So maybe that’s what is behind their recent decision to take this issue up, despite Thailand’s shameless efforts to keep it off the table.

But the Security Council is another matter – and unless the US steps in to settle this on behalf of Thailand – which I doubt it would at this moment in history – the Thai government is likely to lose here as well.

So, the Thai ambassador to the UN has resorted to name-calling, claiming the Cambodian troops – stationed on Cambodian soil – are using ‘guerilla tactics’ to attempt to redraw the national boundary. It’s particularly unfortunate given that, following the Vietnamese defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was only with the Thai government’s help that the Khmer Rouge were able to rearm and become a plausible military force for the next two decades.

The big question is, assuming this military buildup does not erupt into actual fighting (a big if, at this point, since guns have already been drawn at least once), what will the eventual loss of this case mean for internal politics in Thailand? the PAD staked a lot of its prestige on their recent, massive protests against the awarding of World Heritage Status to Preah Vihear – they lost. Now they’ve sent over 5,000 members to attack local villagers near the temple and demand the surrounding land. If they lose that too, what will be their next move?

Meanwhile, Cambodia is set to undergo a major national election this weekend, in which the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, will win most of the seats. It will be a landslide, but the question there is, will it be an absolute majority?

[Current photos of soldiers and civilians at Preah Vihea by Magnum photographer John Vink can be found at his excellent site, full of great Cambodia photos. Go. visit. right. after. you. finish. this.]


Thongchai Winichakul: Preah Vihear could be a 'time bomb'

Prasat Preah Viheat

Preah Vihear has been much in the news of late, much to my annoyance, Thailand’s shame, and to the possible detriment of many. The amazing Thongchai Winichakul wrote this piece, special to The Nation. Author of the justly famous Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Thongchai is perhaps unequaled in his authoritative and deeply humane and moral stance on this issue.

Preah Vihear can be ‘time bomb’
By Thongchai Winichakul
special to The Nation
Published on June 30, 2008

Using the temple to fan nationalism can lead to much bigger tragedy

The nature of modern boundaries between Thailand and its neighbours is like a time bomb.

All boundaries today bear the legacies of old world politics that did not much care if a demarcation by a sharp line, or the unambiguous territorial sovereignty, carried repercussions.

With little exception, claims to exclusive “ownership” rights of borderlands longer than the past 100 to 130 years are probably false and historically impossible to support.

Given the explosive foundation of the modern boundary, maps, treaties and courts have provided settlements of such areas.They are the ground rules used by modern nations to co-exist.

For the boundary around Preah Vihear, the International Court of Justice in 1962 provided a settlement without which military might and heavy loss of lives would have been the only other option.

We should respect the settlement provided by the court since Thailand has no better justifiable claim than Cambodia.

Despite that, the talks about “losing territory” have been common among thoughtless nationalists in the region.

Lao nationalists talk about losing the Isaan region to Thailand. Cambodian ones talk about losing territories to Thailand and Vietnam.

They produce maps of lost territories like Thai nationalists did for generations.

Thais have been taught their territories were lost as well. Every country lost territories. The idea of loss is a powerful tool used to whip up nationalism, especially in domestic politics.

The dark side of nationalism is dangerous as ever. It has now become a weapon in today’s Thai politics.

Nationalism is like fire and it can be destructive.Another kind of “fire”, according to Buddhism, generates greed, hatred and delusion. Continue reading