Eight hundred years after his death, King Jayavarman VII, who ruled Angkor at the height of the Khmer empire, has arisen in recent weeks at the center of a controversy over his historical legacy.
When academic Keng Vannsak questioned Jayavarman VII’s character in an interview with Radio Free Asia late last month, some Cambodians accused him of wanting to destroy the Khmer identity. The debate has drawn in retired King Norodom Sihanouk, who strongly came to King Jayavarman’s defense in a message dated Feb 2 posted at his Web site.
“His Majesty the King Jayavarman VII, at the head of his people, fought ferociously and victoriously against the aggressor Cham empire,” Norodom Sihanouk wrote in the margins of a newspaper article about the controversy.
The retired King also threw his weight behind 17 Cambodian journalists who had issued a letter on Feb 1 accusing Keng Vannsak of distorting history. “With all my affection, I pay them homage,” the retired king wrote of the journalists.
In another message posted at his Web site on Wednesday, Norodom Sihanouk accused Keng Vannsak of having given himself the “sacred mission” of destroying the “glorious reputation of the Khmer monarchy from its beginnings,” and called him an “inveterate Republican, without any scruple, without any intellectual honesty.”
The animosity between the retired King and Keng Vannsak goes back to Cambodia’s first election after independence in 1955, when Keng Vannsak-who spoke openly against the monarchy and especially against Norodom Sihanouk-headed the Democrats’ Party.
Keng Vannsak was thrown in jail for a short spell that year and was also put under police surveillance in the late 1960s.
In his RFA interview, Keng Vannsak said King Jayavarman VII, who was crowned in 1181 and may have died around 1220, was Cham rather than Khmer and had forced his people to work on the construction of countless temples.
The 81-year-old Keng Vannsak also said that Jayavarman VII had lent to a monk the land where Sukothai would later develop as the capital of Siam-Thailand’s former name-which would rise against Angkor in centuries to come.
Contacted by telephone in France last week, Keng Vannsak said his comments on Jayavarman VII were based on excerpts from the royal chronicles-texts dating back to the late 18th century, written by palace staff, that often mixed facts with legends.
His other source of information was the official stone inscriptions chiseled on Angkorian monuments, which French epigraphist George Coedes compiled in eight volumes.
Keng Vannsak’s critical portrayal of Jayavarman VII’s character was, he said, “to tell the true story and [have] it released to the public before I die.”
“I know that my point of view has affected the feelings of local people who have believed, prayed and respected [Jayavarman VII],” he said. “This does not mean that I want to break national unity in our country-my aim is to make our people understand the true story,” he added.
A professor of Khmer language, culture and civilization, Keng Vannsak taught a generation of Cambodian intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s; he had studied in France in the 1940s and was a teacher in Paris and London before returning to the country in 1952.
Keng Vannsak invented a Khmer-language keyboard for typewriters in 1952, and later a method for the creation of new Khmer-language words that still divides Cambodian language experts.
By criticizing Jayavarman VII, some say he has tried to tarnish one of the sacred cornerstones of Khmer identity. And Keng Vannsak knows he has trodden on sacred ground.
“If I speak like this in our country, I will be arrested as I was arrested and jailed many times even though I just encouraged Khmer children to love the Khmer language,” he said.
Long Seam, an epigraphist and a specialist on Cambodia’s stone inscriptions, said that he could not recall any material that would describe Jayavarman VII as Keng Vannsak has portrayed him.
Historians have established that the king turned his capital into the fortified city of Angkor Thom, with the Bayon temple in the middle; built countless temples in addition to 102 hospitals throughout the country; and introduced Buddhism to the Khmer empire.
By having his people build temples, Jayavarman VII was a man of his time, Long Seam said. “The honor of an empire and its power was shown in the great temples they were building,” he said.
“I would stress that every country has to have a hero as a symbol, to believe in and to respect as they would consider a god,” he added.
As for being Cham, historians now agree that Jayavarman VII spent time in the lost kingdom of Champa in the 1160s and 1170s, and was assisted by Cham princes to seize the Khmer throne from a Khmer rival in the 1170s, historian Michael Vickery said.
As the king who reigned when the Angkorian empire dominated the region and extended into today’s Thailand and Laos, Jayavarman VII is one of Cambodia’ most revered figures.
“For Keng Vannsak to claim that Jayavarman VII was a bad king, it makes me sad-we used to respect him as a Cambodian scholar…and a nationalist,” said Ros Chantrabot, a historian and vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia. “Jayavarman is the soul, the symbol of Khmer national unity,” he said.
By questioning Jayavarman VII’s character, said Hang Soth, director general of cultural affairs at the Ministry of Culture, “Keng Vannsak is opposing most Cambodians’ point of view, and turning against his own nation.”
Chea Vannath, former head of the Center for Social Development, said that questions around King Jayavarman’s ethnicity, and claims that he may have lent land to Thailand, seem to have aroused the most anger among the public. Cambodians see a proud heritage in King Jayavarman that they do not want to lose, she added.
“Jayavarman VII was the unifier while Cambodia was fragmented…. Because we have so few role models, we want to cling on to what we have,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon and Elizabeth Tomei)