Conference Examines Cambodia’s Past—Beyond the Khmer Rouge

A symposium exploring the way Cambodia constructs collective memory began in Phnom Penh on Monday, with one unique caveat: It excludes discussions of the Khmer Rouge.

Set to examine the intricacies of Cambodia’s past through language, historical documentation and traditions, “The Awareness of the Past Among Khmer People and their Neighbors,” hosted by the Royal University of Fine Arts’ archaeology faculty, has attracted more than 200 participants, including 28 international academics.

French-Cambodian linguist Joseph Thach, a professor at the Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilization (INALCO) in Paris, said Cambodia’s past was too often seen through the prism of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime—something he would like to see changed.

“When we talk about the past and memories we always talk about the Khmer Rouge. We never try to see memories in a larger time frame,” said Mr. Thach, who helped to organize the three-day event.

“What is written on the Khmer Rouge is very influenced by what we know in Europe after the Second World War, so we don’t have enough distance to understand it objectively,” he added.

“For example, the term ‘genocide.’ I’m not saying there is not genocide. But to say it was or wasn’t is purely in terms of law, and not in terms of [the] thinking and understanding of the people here. And those laws are the laws from outside.”

Mr. Thach added that the past is a subjective concept—with those who hold power also writing the pages of history—which is why the seminar is examining the construction of historical accounts through a wide array of approaches, such as the influence of ideologies.

The rector of the Royal University of Fine Arts, Bong Sovat, said a key discussion would center on research that delves into the influence of Indian and Chinese culture on Cambodia.

“When we talk about culture and civilization we are not limited to countries. Culture is interactive, culture has no boundaries,” Mr. Sovat said.

“To understand the culture of Southeast Asia, we have to look at three components: the influence of indigenous, Indian and Chinese civilizations,” he added.

Satoru Kobayashi, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan, studies the influence on Cambodian culture of Buddhism, which arrived more than 1,000 years ago from Sri Lanka.

Mr. Kobayashi said that in order to study Buddhist history, one must go further than the analysis of texts, philosophers and iconic symbols.

“Buddhism is not only in the Buddhist temples but in people’s lives, in their homes—inherited from their parents and grandparents,” he said.

The event was arranged as part of Manusastra, a collaborative project established in 2012 by INALCO and the Royal University of Fine Arts, which offers Cambodian students the possibility to obtain an internationally recognized degree.

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