Khmer-Language Scholar Keng Vannsak Dies at 83

Keng Vannsak, one of Cambo­dia’s foremost Khmer-language scholars and true intellectuals whose political stances, and at times unusual opinions, made him a controversial figure throughout his life, passed away Thursday at the age of 83.

He was hospitalized Thursday in Montmorency, on the outskirts of Paris, where he had lived for dec­ades, and died a few hours later, Khmer literature expert Khing Hoc Dy said in a telephone interview from his home in Paris.

The country’s first Khmer literature teacher at university level, Keng Vannsak also invented the Khmer-language keyboard for typewriters in 1952, and a method for creating new Khmer-language words that still divides language ex­perts today.

Born on Sept 19, 1925, in Kom­pong Chhnang province, Keng Vannsak became a Khmer language teaching assistant at Paris’ Institut National des Langues Orientales and at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies be­fore graduating with the equivalent of a master’s degree in literature from the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1951.

As director of the National Ped­agogy Institute in the late 1950s and later dean of literature and human sciences at the Royal University in Phnom Penh, he taught generations of Cambodian teachers and writers who later passed on their knowledge to students in high schools in the 1960s and 1970s, Khing Hoc Dy wrote in his introduction to a 2006 Khmer literature book dedicated to Keng Vannsak.

A consummate poet, Keng Van­nsak had a way of telling Cambodi­an traditional legends that really touched his students, Khing Hoc Dy said Sunday.

“He was the first Cambodian scholar to promote the teaching of Khmer literature in high schools and develop a program for that lev­el in the 1950s,” historian Ros Chantrabot said Sunday.

His method of creating Khmer words consisted of using millennia-old Khmer roots rather than using Sanskrit, an approach that led to decades of controversy in some circles, said a linguist who asked to re­main anonymous.

Son Soubert, an ethnologist and art historian who is a member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council, said Keng Vannsak was a pillar of Khmer-language identity.

With him gone, Son Soubert said, “We are losing [a piece of] our Khmer-language identity” because today’s teachers pay little attention to the Khmer language and young people only want to study English.

According to Belgian historian Raoul Jennar, Keng Vannsak was “one of the rare Cambodian intellectuals—if not the only one—to have placed his political activity in the context of a global reflection on Khmer civilization and culture.”

Active in overseas Cambodian student organizations, he had met in Paris many of the future Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, Jennar wrote.

When he returned from France to Cambodia in the early 1950s, he headed the young wing of the Democratic Party, which favored an anti-royalist position and neutrality rather than a pro-US policy, historian David Chandler wrote.

A candidate in the 1955 national elections, he was arrested on election day and spent several weeks in jail, according to Jennar.

Arrested again in 1968, Keng Vannsak supported the Lon Nol coup in 1970, and left for France in 1971 to study and represent the Lon Nol government at the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, which he did until the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975.

He never moved back to Cambodia.

Keng Vannsak created controversy again in 2007 when he said that, according to historical documents, King Jayavarman VII was likely ethnically Cham rather than Khmer, and that he had forced his people to build the countless temples of the period.

With Jayavarman VII considered one of Cambodia’s most important historical figures, a hero nearly deified, Keng Vannsak’s comments brought down on him a host of criticism from a variety of groups and individuals who accused him of be­ing “against the nation.”

One leading Cambodian historian, who requested anonymity in or­der to remain outside of the debate, said, however, that Keng Vannsak was probably not far off the mark: Royal families tend to inter-marry to cement political alliances, and it was possible that Angkorian kings had some Cham blood.

Keng Vannsak’s funeral will take place Tuesday in Paris, Khing Hoc Dy said.

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