Khmer Identity at Heart of Jayavarman VII Row

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 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 Democrat 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 Cambo­ trial,” he said.

Ou Ra, a driver for the ECCC, said he too was unaware of the alleged kickbacks. The only deduction he says he pays is $2 a month for banking services to the Foreign Trade Bank. “If there are serious charges of corruption, they should be investigated, on either side of the court,” ECCC public affairs officer Peter Foster said Thursday. He said the UN side of the court is subject to regular internal audits.

The Cambodian side of the court has already undergone two financial spot checks-one conducted in November and the other in January-neither of which found serious irregularities, Reach Sambath said.

A copy of the findings from the first spot check, which covered the period June to October, was viewed by a reporter. Morison, Kak et Associes, a Phnom Penh accounting firm, examined monies received, salary payments and financial reporting and found no irregularities in any area. But the report also stated that in a more thorough review, “other matters might have come to our attention.”

Key Kak, a managing partner at Morison Kak, said in an interview Thursday that a more thorough audit of the Cambodian side of the court would be conducted by his firm in April. The spot checks, he said, are “just to know that the expenses and receipts have been received correctly.”

Morison Kak is not conducting the UNDP-commissioned human resources review, and it was unclear Thursday who was.

Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said that if they were true, the allegations would be unsurprising.

“The ECCC is just an extension of the national system,” she said. “It is just an extension of the society and the society is corrupt,” she claimed.

Financial irregularities have plagued other international criminal courts, most notably the International Criminal Court of Rwanda, where the UN found evidence that defendants had demanded kickbacks from their defense council.

(Reporting by Erika Kinetz, Douglas Gillison and Kuch Naren.)



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